Sunderland’s five-year sleep walk towards relegation may be complete but some supporters are looking forward to life outside the Premier League.
On more than one front, Sunderland can be said to have led the way in the past year, but not in a good way.
In June it was the first city to declare in the European Union referendum, its overwhelming leave vote setting the tone for a seismic shift in taking back control of Britain’s affairs, or a reckless step into a wholly uncertain future, depending on your view.
With similarly indecent haste, its football team couldn’t even make it into May before hoisting the white flag in its now annual battle for top flight survival, as David Moyes’ side was condemned to occupy one of the three relegation berths to the Championship. From Brexit to Prexit in the space of 11 months. These are turbulent times on Wearside.
Given that the region’s major economic powerhouse, Nissan — more than 7,000 workers directly employed, and another 20,000 indirectly — exports 55% of the 500,000 cars it builds each year to the EU, turkeys voting for Christmas would seem an apt analogy for the 60% of myopic little Britons who were so keen to give Europe the heave-ho.
Belatedly, it would appear the penny has dropped. A recent poll in the local Sunderland Echo newspaper suggested that, given the benefit of hindsight, last summer’s leave decision would now be overturned to one of remain.
With the clock ticking on an uncertain two-year exit timetable, such a course of action clearly isn’t available. It is similarly impossible to reverse an end to Sunderland’s decade-long membership of the richest league in world football. It is one they take their leave of with debts pushing £120m (€142m), a woefully inept squad commanding the vast majority of a ludicrously high £83m (€98m) wagebill, and even the most staunch supporters predicting the only swift route out of the second tier will be into the third. It’s short odds on Wearside still being a Premier League no-go zone in 2021, when Sunderland hopes to embrace 12 months as the UK’s City of Culture.
Despite the obvious pitfalls, many fans see relegation as a chance to make a fresh start. Tom Walsh, a contributor to fanzine Roker Report eloquently outlines the thoughts of many die-hards: “I miss the excitement of watching Sunderland,” he said. “I miss the feeling of thinking ‘we’re going to beat these’ — and then actually beating them.
“Relegation is daunting but it could be the perfect opportunity to start afresh, to build a hungry, young squad, breed a winning mentality and give us more momentum should we return. Let’s not pretend those trips to Barnsley, Sheffield United, and Preston aren’t immense fun. Big allocations, easy trips, good pubs and more than a slim chance that we’ll actually win. The Championship can give us all that and more. Yes, we may fall further but then we can look forward to doing it all again in League One.”
Sunderland FC is one of 80 overseas-owned companies in the region, though Ellis Short has for some time been keen to reduce that number by one. There is little feeling that the 56-year-old billionaire US financier who has been solely at the helm since 2009, has the stomach for the fight in the Championship, Sunderland’s newfound membership of which is set to severely dent the almost £20m (€23.7m)in football tourism brought to the city annually by the fact of being able to boast a Premier League club. Along similar lines, Sunderland University will be shorn of a valuable global reach provided by its proximity to a side in England’s top flight in its effort to attract potential overseas students, especially from the Far East.
And what about those other, less tangible effects of relegation on Wearside? James Ramsbotham, chairman of the North-East England Chamber of Commerce, said: “Every single business in the North East will tell you when the side supported by most employees is doing well, productivity and commitment goes up.”
The financial meltdown as a result of trading visits by the Premier League elite for trips to Burton and Barnsley is clear, but the poignancy of the human cost is even more real. In excess of 40 people, whose impending redundancies were announced by the club well before a five-year sleep walk towards relegation was sealed by a home defeat to Bournemouth at the end of April, last week held a joint leaving get-together. It would be wrong to call it a party, more a fond farewell and a chance to wish good luck to friends, like them, who have been so quickly cut free into choppy waters.
None of the current squad have been as crass as to follow the brazen example of former defender Michael Gray, who turned up to training in a new Ferrari in the aftermath of a relegation which heralded a previous raft of job losses. However, the departing cleaners and other behind the scenes staff who earn in a year what one of Moyes’ missing in action ‘stars’ commands in half a week must wonder why it is they who pay with their livelihoods. Those responsible for the on-pitch ineptitude at worse accept the inconvenience of a reduction in pay, or simply move onto another club gullible enough to provide similarly astronomical remuneration.
John O’Shea is a decent man who comprehends the financial and social costs of relegation rather more than Gray did in 2003. The Ireland defender is out of contract this summer, but keen to cultivate the roots he has put down in the area since joining from Manchester United almost six years ago. Many see him as a future manager at the Stadium of Light, possibly as successor to Moyes, whose future remains uncertain. “I know the attitude and graft and decency of the people around the place and relegation is not nice,” he said. “They’re the ones who I really feel for.”
Sunderland: The key stats
Awarded city status: 1992.
Twinned with: Harbin (China), Saint Nazaire (France), Essen (Germany), Washington (USA).
Prominent sons/daughters: Kate Adie (journalist), Bryan Ferry (musician) Jordan Henderson (footballer), Lauren Laverne (TV/radio presenter), Bob Paisley (football manager), Bob Willis (cricketer).
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