The recent Netflix documentary “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” gave a great insight in to the goings-on inside a struggling football club, a stark contrast to the Amazon Prime “All or Nothing” series which focussed on the record-breaking Manchester City season last year. Most supporters of football clubs outside the top division will probably be able to relate more to the Sunderland documentary rather than the Manchester City one – and none more so than Blackburn Rovers fans.
As someone who lived in Sunderland for four years and has many friends who are season ticket holders at the Stadium of Light, I do have a soft-spot for the side, and I have seen the pain and anguish their fans have felt as they’ve dropped from the Premier League down to League One in the space of 12 months. I can relate to them as well, having seen Blackburn Rovers make the same journey, albeit at a slower rate. Blackburn have been down to League One and come back from it, and my advice to Sunderland fans when they were relegated to the third tier was that it did Rovers a world of good: drop down a division so only the people who want to be there (players and fans) are there, start winning games, get momentum, and start a fresh. Put simply, my advice was “you’ll love it in League One, win some games, good away days and build from there”.
Despite lacking trophy laden success over the past few decades, there is no denying that the north-east of England is a hotbed of football – both in terms of the support for its clubs and also the talent it produces. Especially in the nineties and noughties you could always expect a cracking atmosphere at both the Stadium of Light and St James’ Park as passionate fans got behind their teams. For a while at the turn of the century I was of the belief that England should seriously look at playing more of the meaningful international games up there as the tremendous support would almost be like having a twelfth man on the pitch. Over time though, as the Premier League has become more and more money orientated the impact that support had upon results has diminished as the impact of spending power has grown.
Take Sunderland for example, under Ellis Short they spent the money to match the passion of the fan-base, but could never make that next step up and challenge for Europe and honours. Down the A19, Mike Ashley came in helped the club financially and even ploughed money in to the club when they were relegated. The problem comes when the tap is turned off and the owners decide they are no longer putting money in to a club, and in the football world you never stand still – you either invest to go forward, or you get left behind and go backwards. You can look at Aston Villa in the same light and look what has happened to them. At Blackburn we weren’t even afforded the excuse of the money tap being turned off, in anything, more money was put in to the club, we unfortunately just did it at a time when bad decisions where being made and the club was being mismanaged to the hilt.
What really came across in the Netflix documentary was the passion of the Sunderland fans; the way the whole week built towards a match day and regardless of form or goings on off the pitch, they had that optimism of 3 points that all football fans should have as 3pm on a Saturday approaches, even though at times it looked as though relegation was an inevitability rather than a possibility. Newcastle fans may have mocked their Mackem counterparts in the Checkatrade trophy tie this past week by singing “We saw you crying on Netflix” but without Rafa Benitez in charge I don’t think their fate would be much different.
It is a shame what has happened to Sunderland and Newcastle over the past few years, they have some of the most passionate fans and in the past have provided fantastic value for money for the Premier League, but they have been failed by the stewards of their clubs. I don’t like or agree with the phrase “they deserve better” because in football nobody deserves anything, you have to work for it; but two strong and competitive north-east teams is good for football and the sooner the situation changes up there the better.
Sunderland seem to be going in the right direction with the club having been sold by Ellis Short to an international consortium of investors – and I think this was done at the right time. They had just confirmed their relegation to League One and couldn’t possibly have been at a lower point. By selling the club before the last game of the season that sense of optimism of a righter future and that things could get better looks to have acted as a catalyst for them to bounce back, and more. In their last game of the season they beat Championship Winners 3-0 and where watched by a crowd of over 28,000. This season so far they average a home attendance of over 32,000, in League One. They have rightly addressed the problem many of the bigger clubs face with relegation, the wage bill, and look to be building more sustainably now than when cash was being thrown at it by Ellis Short – the days of spending £13.6m on Didier N’Dong and £10m on Darren Bent are gone. If they can get back up to the top division in a sustainable manner, although no-one wants to be relegated, if it happens and you are working to a sustainable business model you can manage it and look to bounce back (as Sunderland did before the days of Short), rather than panicking buying players to survive and then being tied to the extortionate wages of the likes of Jack Rodwell. If you look at Newcastle’s spending over the last year, they remained in the Premier League in their first season following promotion and are well placed again this season to survive, but actually made a profit. Although I believe a lot of that is down to Benitez, it does beg the question whether Ashley is doing a good job and it is unrealistic expectations of the fans at a time when spending money can put the club on the knife-edge between success and disaster; maybe a look past the Angel of the North to Sunderland and what happened to them despite spending the money they want Ashley to spend may be worth a cautionary glance to see what ‘could’ happen if money was spent. For the record, I don’t think either Newcastle or Sunderland need to spend big, as I’ll come on to, just getting rid of someone despised by the fans, especially in such a senior position at the club as Ashley or Short, can be worth millions in how it changes the atmosphere around the club and the fans and changes the dynamic of the club moving forwards.
Looking back at the Netflix documentation, one of the key messages and situations which was made blatantly clear was the lack of money both for transfer fees to invest in new players and for wages to pay these players. So much of Sunderland’s activity in the transfer windows during last season relied on bringing players in on loan and moving players around to be able to pay the wages. The problem comes when you have a player on a good number who contractually doesn’t have to leave, and won’t leave of their own accord as they know they’ll never get as good a deal elsewhere – it’s not the fault of the player that they have been offered such a stupid contract with high wages which aren’t affected by relegation, it’s the fault of the clubs for offering that contract. Yes, the player should have a moral obligation and a personal desire to play every week and be the best players they can be, but a footballers career is limited and they have to potentially make the money to last them a lifetime. Loan signings are brilliant if they add quality to a squad and improve a team, but ultimately they have to want to be there, otherwise they just become a number drain on resources, team spirit and confidence. Yes Chris Martin may have been a good signing for Sunderland, but if he didn’t want to be there you’d be better (and cheaper) playing die hard Sunderland fan Callum off the street. I don’t know the statistics but I’d be surprised if there was any trend for teams bringing in players on loan and then being successful in keeping a team up. However, bring a player in on loan to complete a confident side on a good run and I bet the results are completely different.
Look at Rovers: during the Kean/Berg/Appleton/Bowyer/Lambert era we had no end of young players in on loan who just failed to make an impact (think Doneil Henry, Matt Grimes, Mo Barrow, DJ Campbell, Kerim Rekik, Cameron Stewart, Luke Varney, Liam Feeney), very few made continuous positive contributions to the side, arguably only Danny Graham, Rudi Gestede, Danny Guthrie and Jordi Gomez. Look at players brought in when we were doing well (using last season as an example) such as Adam Armstrong and Jack Payne and they made a real contribution to get promotion over the line – the difference being that they came in to add to an already good team with positive spirit, rather than being the great white hope of survival. Ashley Fletcher when he signed for Sunderland was 23 and had scored 6 goals in 59 appearances, albeit it a good chunk of those may have been from the bench, it is hardly the form that you pin your survival hopes to, regardless of how excited Chris Coleman was by the signing. You could see from the moment he missed that chance on the documentary his confidence was shot – what Sunderland needed was someone to score from day one of being played, without that it’s another dropped head around the club. Back in 2012 we signed Anthony Modeste on loan from Bordeaux and although he failed to score in his 9 appearances, on his debut he won a penalty early and wanted to take it. David Dunn took the ball and missed – hindsight is a wonderful thing, but had Modeste got off to a flyer you never know, his goals may have kept us up (it is also worth pointing out that Modeste has gone on to score 74 goals in 159 appearances for Bastia, Hoffenheim and FC Koln and earnt himself a rumoured €35m pound move to China, so the guy evidently had quality and the ability to score goals).
The similarities between the Sunderland club seen in the documentary and Blackburn Rovers in the pre-Mowbray days are there for all to see: no money, no confidence, fans turning on a team as soon as they go behind, fans wanting rid of the owners, scrounging around for loan players, seasons starting with optimism and ending in disaster. I’d go so far as to say had the documentary been focussed on Rovers under Owen Coyle in 2016-17, the negativity around the club would have been ten-fold. The documentary does open the door to fans to see just how difficult running a struggling football club can be, but that can also just increase the frustration from the fans. Although ultimately the documentary ends up being a negative one for Sunderland fans, it does end on a high note with the new owner and optimism – in a way it’s good the documentary had that end note and was released after the buyout, or else there would be nothing positive for the Sunderland fans to hold on to from a wretched season caught on tape.
Sunderland are currently sat in 3rd place in League One, a point off the automatic position and 5 points of league leader Portsmouth but with a game in hand on both – Sunderland also play Portsmouth at home on the last day of the season. Their attendances are phenomenal for the third tier and they are looking upwards for a change rather than the last half a decade of looking over their shoulders, or even staring relegation right in the eyes. The catalyst to this turnaround has to be the change of owner. When you look at Rovers I’m not too sure what the catalyst for our change in fortunes has been. When Owen Coyle was sacked in February 2017 with Rovers sat second-bottom of the Championship I think most Rovers fans had accepted relegation was going to happen. Removing Owen Coyle was the best decision the club could have made – any former Burnley manager is unlikely to be welcomed at Ewood Park as manager of Blackburn Rovers, but when you throw in his connections with Jerome Anderson, he was never going to be given any settling in period or benefits of the doubt; the fans had wanted him gone almost from the day he started. By relieving him of his position an air of negativity was lifted and for once it felt like the fans were being listened to and things might change at the top. Tony Mowbray wasn’t the name on most peoples, or anybody’s, lips when he was appointed, but at his first game at Burton Albion away there was somewhat of a party atmosphere and everyone got behind the team, there wasn’t one chant about the Venky’s I don’t think there have been many if any since. It wasn’t the incoming Mowbray that created this positive atmosphere, maybe it was just the resignation to accepting we were going to be relegated combined with the fact we had just got something we had all wanted, but I’m convinced any manager with no prior link to Burnley, Jerome Anderson or any of the other people linked to Rovers demise would have got the same reception – Mowbray hadn’t had a job since resigning from League One Coventry City 5 months earlier after a string of results without a win. It didn’t have to be Mowbray, but I’m so glad it was.
Since that moment everything has fallen in to place – results turned around and we almost stayed up, we had a fantastic season in League One and in doing so got the fans back on board behind a club that has players who look like they enjoy playing for the club and would run through brick walls for the badge. There is so much positivity around the club and, like Sunderland, for the first time in years we are looking upwards – maybe not to promotion (yet!) but at stability and growth. Had a documentary been done at Ewood during the Lambert/Coyle era and one done now, it would look like to different clubs even though only 3 years has passed. Last night against Millwall was a great example of how far we’ve come – in years gone by we would have defended resolutely but succumbed to a late goal and lost; Mowbray had the tactical awareness to know we couldn’t go to The New Den and try and play our style of football, we had to dig deep and battle it out for 90 minutes and try and create something with our quality, which he did with very good substitutions, using Adam Armstrong’s key attribute his pace. Signing Mowbray up to a new long term contract until 2022 gives him a platform to continue to build this team and look to the future. We’d all love to be back in the Premier League but it has to be at the right time so that we don’t make bad decisions that we end up paying for for another decade. I’m pretty sure for the meantime most Rovers fans would just be happy to see that commitment and passion on the pitch that we have grown to expect continue.
I’d say this to Sunderland fans – relegation to League One can feel like the end of the world, but under the right conditions it can be a platform to build on, almost a re-birth for the club. Remember the feeling of winning and enjoying going to the football every week and visit some of the ground you may not have visited for a while or even been to before – at the end of the season if you achieve promotion and a club you are proud of again, it is definitely worth the one-year hiatus from the Championship. I for one would love to see us playing Sunderland in the Championship again next season.