It is over 43 years since an overjoyed Bob Stokoe raced, arms outstretched, across the Wembley sward to celebrate one of the great FA Cup upsets. Second Division Sunderland had just slain the mighty Leeds team featuring Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter and John Giles to win the 1973 final and their manager, looking faintly ridiculous in a brown raincoat, red tracksuit bottoms and trademark trilby, was rushing to embrace his goalkeeper Jim Montgomery. The “Stokoe run” has since been cast in bronze and erected on a concourse outside the Stadium of Light as a reminder of happier times. Given his pose, those unfamiliar with its context could be forgiven for thinking the club’s former manager is fleeing in terror from the apocalyptically awful performances of the players who now call the ground behind his statue home.
Defeat at the hands of Arsenal on Saturday mean Sunderland have broken one-time sultans of slapstick Manchester City’s record for the worst start in Premier League history after 10 matches. They remain on course to break Derby County’s unwanted record of the lowest tally of points amassed in a season. If anything, they are well ahead of schedule: in 2007-08, Derby were relegated with 11 but at least managed to conjure up a victory in their first six matches, a feat Sunderland have failed to achieve in any of the past four seasons. They have gone 10 without a win in the current campaign and even a club renowned for its implausible last-ditch feats of escapology will do well to emulate the 17th place with which they secured their Premier League status last season.
While much of the blame for Sunderland’s latest glacier-quick burst from the blocks has been laid at the door of their seventh manager in the past five years, it seems unfair to blame David Moyes for many of the shortcomings of a club that gives every indication of being dysfunctional from the boardroom down. Their handling of last year’s child-sex case involving Adam Johnson, now serving a six-year jail sentence, was little short of disgraceful and cost the club’s chief executive Margaret Byrne her job. Despite showing little or no aptitude for her role, she had been earning an astonishing salary of more than £450,000 per year. Byrne’s almost complete disregard for the young, Sunderland-supporting victim of Johnson’s crimes marked an unprecedented low for a club that has always prided itself on its links to a community whose tolerance for the myriad on and off-field shortcomings of their club often borders on the heroic.
Now enjoying – or perhaps enduring – a 10th consecutive season in the Premier League, their longest top-flight spell since their first relegation in 1958, Sunderland have contrived to let all the financial benefits that ought to have come with being Premier League staples at such a lucrative time bypass them completely. Under the stewardship of their owner, the billionaire financier Ellis Short, they lost £25m in 2014-15. According to the football finance blogger Swiss Ramble, this was the third largest deficit of only six top-flight clubs who pulled off the spectacularly impressive feat of losing tens of millions of pounds at a time when the Premier League is drowning under a constant deluge from the TV money-hose.
Much of this deficit can be put down to hideously bad investment in players, with poor performances and the high turnover of managers meaning each incumbent has been saddled with barely adequate hand-me-downs they don’t want, prompting them to buy even more inadequate duds of their own. “Something seems to happen to players when they move to the Stadium of Light,” wrote the Secret Footballer, formerly of this parish, last March. A couple of years previously he had incurred the wrath of many Sunderland fans when criticizing a squad drinking culture which many claimed did not exist. He recalled a time in Marbella when he had seen one unnamed Sunderland player ordering a Nebuchadnezzar of champagne for £75,000. The player in question was Connor Wickham, now of Crystal Palace, although other reports of the striker’s extravagant poolside purchase suggested his 15 liter bottle of Armand de Brignac cost only £17,500, still more than two thirds of the average annual salary earned by residents of the city whose team he represented.
On the pitch, Moyes’s apparent determination to disprove Albert Einstein’s adage about the definition of insanity continues to damage his increasingly poor reputation as a manager. In the face of all available evidence to the contrary, Moyes insists his team is improving and their elusive first win is just around the corner if they “keep doing what they are doing”. There are no shortage of poor sides in the Premier League and Sunderland have long been among them but they have now reached a point where finding three worse ones will be little short of a miracle. Going down might serve them well, as neighbors Newcastle are showing relegation can be a mercy.
In more important news for citizens of Sunderland, the future of the Nissan factory has been confirmed following controversial government “support and assurances”. This week, Moyes and his players are due to visit the car manufacturing plant and the manager joked some of them might soon be looking for jobs there. They are unlikely to get them – while Nissan have announced plans to build two new models on Wearside, collapsible clown cars are not expected to roll off their assembly line any time soon.