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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

From Arsenal to Accrington Stanley: Sunderland's decline to League One football

  • Second successive relegation for the club confirmed on Saturday
  • Having played in the Premier League in 2016-17, will start next season in League One
  • First time in England's third tier since 1987-88 season when Marco Gabbiadini fired them to promotion
Sunderland's Paddy McNair sums up the club's emotions after they suffer their second successive relegation. Nigel Roddis / Getty Images
Sunderland's Paddy McNair sums up the club's emotions after they suffer their second successive relegation. Nigel Roddis / Getty Images

As a second successive relegation dispatches Sunderland to League One, a flattering title for English football’s third tier, supporters are left to reflect on what has become of their proud old club.

A history of great escapes, without which Sunderland’s most recent spell in the Premier League – 10 years - would have been shorter, was rudely interrupted by last season’s bottom-place drop from the top flight.

Yet another failure on Saturday, defeat to relegation rivals Burton Albion, combined with results elsewhere, ensured their fate and has left them with only pride to play for and trying to avoid finishing last in the final two games.

Since those matches are against the champions Wolverhampton Wanderers and promotion-chasing Fulham, even that is a tall order.

Almost inevitably, the rot began when Burton sent on a former Sunderland striker, Darren Bent, as a late substitute with the home team winning 1-0. He soon equalised and a winner followed in stoppage time.

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A year ago, facing a similar fate in the Premier League, fans consoled themselves with the thought that at least they would see goals and wins in the Championship, maybe a push for promotion. I should know; I was among them.

Instead, the club I have supported since my father took me to watch Brian Clough score a winner at Middlesbrough 56 years ago, has been as much of a disgrace in the second tier as it was in the Premier.

Bad luck plays no part in this staggering decline. The football has been wretched and the latest relegation is richly deserved.

It beggars belief that Peter Reid led the same club to seventh-top Premier finishes in 2000 and 2001. His team was competitive and sometimes fun to watch, Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn scoring the goals and a fine goalkeeper, Thomas Sorensen, stopping them at the other end.

This season? The top scorer, Lewis Grabban, left in January and the three keepers used by manager Chris Coleman have been uniformly abysmal.

Repeated managerial changes and a lack of investment – the American owner Ellis Short is desperate to find a buyer and long ago stopped venturing from his Florida retreat to attend games – have had their logical outcome.

It has been a rough time for Sunderland fans. Nigel Roddis / Getty Images
It has been a rough time for Sunderland fans. Nigel Roddis / Getty Images

Each new manager has had to cope with overpaid, could not-care-less dross recruited by those before him. The players frequently perform as if they met for the first time in the dressing room.

It is perhaps fitting that Short’s hopes of collecting a good price from anyone bold or foolish enough to buy Sunderland have been dealt a massive blow by his own decision, perhaps understandable given how badly his money has been spent, to starve managers of funds that might have altered the club’s calamitous course.

But are the supporters deluding themselves in thinking they follow a big club?

The impressive size of the fan base – sixth best supported Premier League club while struggling at the bottom, Championship attendances of 25-30,000 at a stadium that has seen only two home wins since December 2016 - is unimportant.

Sunderland’s last meaningful trophy came 45 years ago, when Ian Porterfield’s goal and Jimmy Montgomery’s saves overcame then-mighty Leeds United in the 1973 FA Cup final.

Yes, there is a haul of six top flight titles, bettered only by Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton and Aston Villa.

But Queen Victoria was on the English throne when half of them were won and Edward VIII was still a few months away from abdication in 1936 when it last happened.

The first relegation in club history had occurred four years before I stood on tiptoes at Ayresome Park to see that Clough goal in my debut as a fan.

In the decades that have followed, I have witnessed nine promotions. Sadly, taking account of the weekend’s events, that means 10 relegations.

Supporting Sunderland is a generally thankless mission. I have manipulated work schedules, tested a wife’s patience and, doubtless, irritated friends and colleagues in pursuit of my passion.

How much I have spent, and how many miles I travelled, is a subject best overlooked.

Few follow the team without having a close connection with the city or wider northeastern region. There are no gloryseekers.

The club effectively chooses us as supporters. Niall Quinn understood that and so does Coleman, who could have done so much better for himself after his sterling efforts as manager of Wales.

It has been a tough time for Chris Coleman since he took over as Sunderland manager. Lee Smith / Action Images
It has been a tough time for Chris Coleman since he took over as Sunderland manager. Lee Smith / Action Images

Do we regret the duty of unconditional love imposed on us? Probably not. In my own case, there is no such concept as “a second club”; there is affection for a few others – Celtic and Liverpool spring to mind - but I look out for their results without trace of passion. A win or defeat for Sunderland determines my mood for days.

Now that visits to the footballing hotbeds of Accrington Stanley, Luton Town and Wycombe Wanderers loom, I shall avoid predicting a romp to immediate promotion.

Only once have I seen my club descend to such depths. Wolves, Leeds, Southampton and Aston Villa have all been there, too, so there should be no reason why Sunderland cannot bounce back too.

But back in the old Third Division of 1987-88, when Sunderland went up as champions at the first attempt, Marco Gabbiadini and Eric Gates formed a sparkling goalscoring duo and the defence included the athletic, intuitive Gary Bennett and the dependable John MacPhail, also a penalty specialist.

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Coleman – or someone else if Short or new owners want yet another change – must rid the club of players with little commitment or limited ability.

They must be replaced by men as talented as Gabbiadini and Gates, and as willing to embrace the cause.

If that happens, crowds will soon creep back above 30,000. And if not, the Sunderland of this time next year could be wondering what life is like in League Two.

Colin Randall writes regularly for The National and edits the salutsunderland.com fan site.