Like the longest-running game of musical chairs, there was an inevitability to the fact that when the music stopped it would be Sunderland left without a chair.
Except the Black Cats aren’t standing. They are on their knees and hurtling towards the Championship having failed to win or score since the 4-0 demolition of Crystal Palace on February 4. The Eagles have benefitted from changing manager with, ironically, former Sunderland boss Sam Allardyce proving their saviour. But Sunderland are sticking staunchly by David Moyes.
It has been a bad week for Moyes. A 1-0 loss to mid-table Watford on Saturday was followed by the leaking of footage which showed the former Manchester United boss threaten to slap BBC reporter Vicki Sparks “even though you’re a woman”. Moyes’ week from hell came to a head on Tuesday evening as champions Leicester City continued their remarkable revival with a fifth straight league win under caretaker boss Craig Shakespeare – another man appointed with a rescue remit.
That 2-0 defeat leaves Sunderland nine points from safety and with a goal difference of minus 29. After circling the drain for the last four years, their time is surely, finally, up.
How did it come to this and should Moyes spearhead the Black Cats’ promotion attempt next season?
On the back foot
Moyes would undoubtedly put much of the season’s failings on two factors. Firstly that he was only appointed as Sam Allardyce’s replacement on July 23 after his predecessor was named, very briefly, England manager. With less than a month until their Premier League opener at Manchester City it was far-from-ideal preparation and something Sunderland’s hierarchy made clear had displeased them at the time.
His second go-to defence would be the lack of cash he has had to spend in the transfer market. The Scot has been able to make 12 signings at a cost of roughly £35million. It’s not a pittance but, given Sunderland’s recent history of narrowly avoiding the drop, more was needed to strengthen a poor squad.
Another issue which would only have served to hinder was the Lamine Kone saga. One of the key men behind the Black Cats’ successful attempt to avoid the drop last season, the Ivorian defender was subject of a bid from Everton in the summer and made his intention to leave clear. A sudden change of heart and a new five-year deal smoothed things over but it was another hiccup Moyes could have done without.
Not helping himself
All of the above were factors out of the former Manchester United boss’ hands. What has not helped is the 53-year-old’s dour outlook on the season. As early as August 22, after a 2-1 defeat to north east rivals Middlesbrough in the second game of the Premier League season, Moyes declared his side were in a relegation battle.
Asked what his response would be to fans who feared another battle to avoid the drop, Moyes replied: “Well, they would probably be right because that’s where they’ve been every other year for the last four years, so why would it suddenly change?
“I think it will be, I don’t think you can hide the facts, that will be the case, yes. People will be flat because they are hoping that something is going to dramatically change – it can’t dramatically change, it can’t.”
One has to wonder what message that sends to the players in the dressing room. You can’t imagine the Sunderland squad walking tall after hearing their manager’s brutally blunt assessment of a season which was two games old.
David Moyes at #SAFC
Goal Difference -29
Won 1 in 2017
Not scored in last 6
Not scored in 10 of last 11
— Phil Browell (@phil_browell) April 4, 2017
And the glass-half-empty approach continued in January. Asked if a good window, as had been the case a year earlier when Allardyce signed Kone, Jan Kirchoff and Wabhi Khazri, would make a big difference, Moyes was defiant. “I think to suggest that the players we’ll be bringing in will make a big difference wouldn’t be correct,” he said.
He duly continued his Everton 2.0 project by signing Darron Gibson and Bryan Oviedo from the Toffees for a combined £7.5million. They followed Joleon Lescott, Victor Anichebe and Steven Pienaar in signing for their former boss, plus Jack Rodwell who was already at the club.
Didier Ndong – Moyes’ biggest outlay at £13.6million – aside, none of his signings have improved the Sunderland squad or resolved their reliance on Jermain Defoe. The 34-year-old, who won’t be short of offers to leave the Stadium of Light this summer, has scored 58 per cent of the Wearsiders’ league goals this season with 14.
It isn’t hard to wonder if anyone who hadn’t played for Moyes previously would have taken the plunge in January and signed for the Black Cats.
Will he have a job next season?
The big question, therefore, is whether Moyes will get the chance to atone for this season. There is no doubt he has been a manager of a high calibre in the recent past – he was appointed as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor as recently as 2013. But high-profile failures at United, Real Sociedad and now Sunderland will cast doubts over his ability to replicate his success at Goodison Park.
When Black Cats owner Ellis Short made Moyes his ninth appointment in as many years since buying out Niall Quinn and the Drumaville Consortium, he revealed the Scot was the man he had wanted for each of his last five appointments.
Moyes pre-United was the kind of coup Sunderland would not have been able to pull off. Even now there is a sense that Moyes might remain beyond this season. If Short had wanted to make a change – and recent history suggests the American is not afraid to – he would surely have done it by now.
But relegation will, in a perverse way, help Moyes. For a start he can clear the decks. The current squad is a hotch-potch of players signed by managers ranging all the way back to Steve Bruce. Half the battle next season will be clearing the decks and sorting the players who are up for the fight from those who think they belong at a higher level.
Moyes has, in the past, shown he can make tough decisions and re-build a squad on a budget. Given Sunderland’s reported debt, a budget is what he will have to work on. But recent history suggests Moyes might not have the qualities to galvanise a group used to perennial disappointment. Nothing he has done this season suggests he can rediscover the magic touch in a division which has changed since he managed in it last in 2001. The only thing he can cling to is his owner’s backing.