Sunderland have had a very poor start to the season and find themselves in 22nd position in the Championship after 15 matches. Last night, they had a must-win match against one of the few teams below them in the table, Bolton Wanderers, but they failed to take the three points and extended their winless run at home that stretches back to December 2016. In the immediate aftermath of the match, the club decided to part company with Simon Grayson, who was only appointed as manager during the summer.
It was always going to be a difficult job to take over at the Stadium of Light after their relegation from the Premier League last season and many turned the post down during the summer, including Derek McInnes. After a lengthy managerial search, they eventually decided to appoint Grayson and it was widely viewed as a good appointment at the time, especially by those who follow the Championship. The 47-year-old arrived with a wealth of Football League management experience and left a safe job at Preston North End, where he was doing an excellent job. At the time of his appointment, Grayson spoke of his excitement at the opportunity.
“I am delighted to come to Sunderland, a club with such wonderful history and tradition, and I’m excited by the opportunity to manage this club and I want to bring the good times back.
“Sunderland are so fortunate to have such tremendous support and I want to give these fans a team they can be proud of. I want a group of players full of desire, team spirt and a never-say-die attitude – that’s the very least that we should expect from a Sunderland player.”
There were many that thought Grayson was making a mistake taking the Sunderland job as he was making progress with Preston. However, the manager viewed this as a step-up and he is right in his comments that the Black Cats are a huge club. The potential is massive and it was an opportunity that he couldn’t turn down. However, he underestimated the problems at the club. This is a team that have been perennial losers at the bottom of the Premier League for years and time was needed to establish a winning mentality.
The challenge was a different one to what Grayson is used to as a manager. He has often taken over clubs in League One and brought them into the Championship, implementing a belief. The former Leeds United and Preston manager has never been in charge of a relegated Premier League club.
At the Stadium of Light, there were a lot of disinterested players on high wages and a negative atmosphere surrounded the club. It takes a big character to enact change and despite only being given 18 matches, the 47-year-old had little to no impact. He claimed he took the job without hesitation and it now looks like a decision that was made without the required forward-planning.
Where did it go wrong?
There were early signs that this was going to be another fight against relegation and that nothing had changed at the club. In their final pre-season match, Sunderland were mauled at home against Celtic, who didn’t even field their strongest eleven. On that day, the Black Cats had a starting eleven filled with Premier League experience including Lee Cattermole, Lamine Kone and Billy Jones, but the performance was one that supporters were all too familiar with.
The start to the competitive season wasn’t terrible and supporters started to believe in the team once again. In August, they beat Bury and Carlisle United in the Carabao Cup. Meanwhile, an away victory against promotion-hopefuls Norwich City combined with battling draws against Championship-hardened Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday suggested Sunderland could compete in the division.
However, things quickly went downhill and as we approach August, Sunderland have yet to win a competitive fixture since the 22nd August. During their opening 15 league matches, they have conceded 30 goals, which gives them the second-worst defence in the division. In terms of scoring goals, they are faring well, as they have found the back of the net on 20 occasions, but they are leaky at the other end.
A hugely worrying statistic is that they have kept only one clean sheet this season and that came against League One strugglers Bury in only their second match of the campaign. In their last eight fixtures, they have conceded 21 goals including eight in their last three. Simon Grayson has been known for organising teams well during his managerial career, but he has failed to build that at the Stadium of Light.
There is an argument to say that this is a harsh sacking, as it was a difficult job to start with and Grayson had started to make progress on the pitch. Sunderland have drawn four of their last five league matches and were picking up points, albeit slowly. That said, there are good players in the squad and the club should be aiming for more than Championship survival. The attendances at the Stadium of Light continue to fall with it being registered at 27,317 at the weekend against Bristol City. They had to make a change and the manager is the easiest individual to replace.
What next for the club?
This is going to be one of the most important appointments of the club’s history as they can’t afford another relegation. Aitor Karanka is the current favourite with the bookies and that would be a great choice for the club, but they would need to convince the Spaniard to take the job. It is one of the most difficult in English football at the moment and it isn’t one for the faint-hearted. He knows the North East well due to his time at Middlesbrough, but it would be a coup if they pull it off.
The next two names being linked at Peter Reid and Kevin Phillips. They both have connections with the club, but the former has been out of management for a long time, while the latter has never held a senior management position. They both carry risks, but the attraction of them comes from their links with the Stadium of Light.
If they appoint either of the two men, it could be the injection of positivity that the supporters need. Sunderland need a manager to come in and create a good mood around the ground on match-days. It would be a risk, but it could be one that pays off.