Losing 6-0 at Bolton over the weekend proved the final straw for Lee Johnson, who became the latest Sunderland manager to fail to bring them out of a historic low for the club with the Mackems still marooned in League One for the fourth consecutive season.
Johnson lasted 14 months in charge of the Black Cats but a run of one win in five left the club’s new ownership with little choice but to pull the trigger on yet another manager. Sunderland had ended 2021 on a high with a 5-0 home win over Sheffield Wednesday prompting hope that a return to the Championship could finally be on the cards.
A subsequent collapse in their form, though, means the League One promotion picture looks a lot clearer. Sunderland may only be a point outside the top two but with Rotherham United and Wigan Athletic having games in hand, it is hard to see Johnson’s successor overhauling them.
The club’s plight captivated millions over two seasons of the hit Netflix series Sunderland ‘Til I Die, but the cameras have left the Stadium of Light and a fourth season in the third tier looms.
Lack of clarity over ownership
Humiliation at Bolton showed Sunderland are in trouble on the field but off the pitch issues remain. Despite the welcome arrival of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, who became the club’s chairman at the age of 23 last year, Sunderland’s financial firepower now seems to have totally dissipated and a failure to escape League One this season could be very costly.
Louis-Dreyfus – who is the son of former Marseille owner Robert Louis-Dreyfus – is reported to be worth $2 billion through a family trust fund but Sunderland have seen little of that cash to date. Fans were happy to be rid of former chairman Stewart Donald, who had been actively trying to sell the club for at least a year before the Football League granted its approval.
Donald, though, is not completely out of the picture. It is unclear what his role is now, nor how much Louis-Dreyfus paid for the club. Donald, Juan Sartori and Charlie Methven previously owned the club between them and fans have been left in the dark as to the current structure.
Louis-Dreyfus has little public profile and he does not do interviews, leading to an information vacuum. Donald was hugely unpopular – most supporters believed his plan was to flip the club post-promotion for a quick buck – but he did at least communicate openly with the fanbase.
It is almost a year since Louis-Dreyfus took over as chairman but fans deserve to know a lot more about how their club is owned and who is involved in the day-to-day operations. Donald, Sartori and Methven are all seemingly background figures now but most Sunderland fans were hoping to be rid of them completely. That does not seem to have happened – at least not yet.
Sunderland’s decline can be traced back to owner Ellis Short pulling the plug after years of him covering gigantic losses but, despite Louis-Dreyfus’ personal riches, spending remains limited.
Confusing coaching changes
It says a lot about Sunderland’s instability that Steve Bruce was the last manager to see out two complete seasons in charge of the Black Cats. Bruce left Sunderland back in 2011, having led the club to a top-half finish in the Premier League, a mile away from where they currently find themselves in League One.
Johnson’s reign was not a total disaster – he led Sunderland to a memorable victory in the EFL Trophy final against Tranmere Rovers at Wembley in March 2021 – but the club needed more.
Sunderland look to be a lock for at least the play-offs again but anything can happen when the pressure is on in that situation. Having already seemingly missed out on automatic promotion, it will be hard for Sunderland to build momentum going into the play-offs at the end of the season.
Losing 6-0 is a defeat it is hard for any manager to recover from but optimism around Johnson had been high just a few weeks ago. Thrashing the Owls sent Sunderland to the top of League One just a month ago but now Johnson has been written off as a failure by the club’s board.
Over the past decade, Sunderland have gone through nearly a dozen managers. Even when they were still in the Premier League, the churn was problematic. Martin O’Neill, Paolo di Canio, Gustavo Poyet, Dick Advocaat, Sam Allardyce and David Moyes all did not last long, with the latter the man in charge of what had been an inevitable relegation by the time it arrived in 2018.
Post-relegation, respected managers including Simon Grayson and Chris Coleman, as well as Jack Ross, Phil Parkinson and Johnson, have found it impossible to succeed at Sunderland. It suggests there are more problems at the club than just the owner whoever is the manager.
What is for sure is that the club’s fans, who continue to travel in big numbers to watch third-tier football, deserve a lot more than seeing Sunderland lose 6-0 to Bolton in League One.
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- Premier League