Simon Grayson will need to work wonders to get goal-shy Sunderland back in Premier League
Shorn of their only goal threat from last season and with a general lack of stability around the club, the new manager has his work cut out.
A new season is supposed to provide a new start. Sunderland have a new manager, new strikers and a new division but it is hard to argue the slate has been wiped completely clean.
They begin the Championship season against Derby County on Friday with the sense that, although some of the personnel have changed, indignity can be a constant companion. In an exercise in understatement, the club website asserted that new manager Simon Grayson was “disappointed with final pre-season showing.”
As well he might have been. Sunderland lost 5-0 at home to Celtic, completing an unfortunate Scottish double after a 3-0 reverse to St Johnstone. Grayson’s new forwards, James Vaughan and Lewis Grabban, scarcely gave the impression they are dovetailing seamlessly by arguing who would take a penalty. Vaughan won the dispute. He duly missed the penalty.
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That same evening, midfielder Darron Gibson was caught on video using a couple of insulting words to describe the Sunderland side.
“It was something we didn’t need,” said Grayson, showing a fine line in understatement himself.
If Gibson gave Sunderland a bad name, they gave the wrong spelling of his when announcing they would take disciplinary action. The Ireland international had identified three teammates – Wahbi Khazri, Lamine Kone and Jeremain Lens – who he suggested did not care.
If some supporters may echo that view, Gibson’s behaviour otherwise suggested a problem with the club’s culture.
It is little wonder that Grayson, a quiet overachiever who has won four promotions from League One and steered Preston North End to successive 11th-place finishes on a bottom-six budget, talked of wanting players with “hunger and desire”.
The Yorkshireman offers common sense and realism, but he was not even Sunderland’s first choice: while many Scots gravitate south of the border, Derek McInnes rejected them to remain at Aberdeen. Uncertainty reigned when Sunderland were up for sale. They languished unwanted.
And Grayson’s recruitment drive has come without the funds generated by the £30 million (Dh144.7m) sale of Jordan Pickford. At least the budget was not further dented by a pay-off to David Moyes.
At least a manager who had long seemed resigned to relegation did not take one. Sunderland will not miss his pessimism. They will miss Jermain Defoe’s goals and not merely because he scored the majority of their meagre tally of 29.
It is an indication of Grayson’s problems that his current squad scored a mere four league goals for Sunderland last season. Khazri and Kone got one apiece; so, too, did midfielder Didier Ndong and defender Billy Jones.
Hence the arrivals of the bought Vaughan, prolific for League One Bury, and the borrowed Grabban, unwanted at Premier League Bournemouth.
It is why, although Sunderland’s last two stays in the second tier were one-season affairs, their first objective should be to score the goals to keep them in the Championship.
The squad has been gutted by expiring contracts, release clauses and sales. The well-connected Grayson has used his contacts to loan intelligently but Sunderland look short of creativity.
They begin against four of the division’s strongest sides – Derby, then Norwich City, Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United – and need to shed a losing mentality quickly. They have just two wins in 2017; fortunes do not tend to change that swiftly that such sides are propelled to promotion.
History provides warnings. Aston Villa, another wearied by years of relegation battles and unaccustomed to the Championship’s demanding nature, came down 12 months earlier, won just one of their first 12 games and limped in 13th in a season when they spent over £70m.
Lacking such funds, Sunderland’s plight could be more severe. Unless, that is, Grayson and his charges prove the loose-tongued Gibson wrong, and soon.
Updated: August 4, 2017 01:55 PM