Dark Comedy: a play, movie, etc., having elements of comedy and tragedy, often involving gloomy or morbid satire.
Whenever a team suffers relegation from the Premier League, you’ll usually see a few insults and sarcastic goodbyes being tossed around but there will be some fans who wish goodwill for the club (especially if their favorite club bought a player from said relegated team). “You’ll be back up.” “We wanted (insert relegation survivor here) to go down, not you.” “Proper club, don’t deserve to be in the Championship.” But there’s always that one club that’s easy to laugh at, no matter how dire their situation is or how depressed their fans are. And for the last few years, its been Sunderland A.F.C. But to understand their comedic tragedy, we must start from the very beginning. So strap yourself in and grab yourself a beer. We’re in for the long haul. Feel free to take breaks anytime. I won’t mind.
This here is a list of the top eight teams in terms of English title winners (both before and after the incarnation of the Premier League in 1992). Sunderland is among the teams tied for sixth with six titles. They were a force in the early days of English football. Names like center forward John Campbell, goalkeeper Ned Doig, winger Jimmy Hannah, and captain Johnny Auld (often seen as the first center-half/midfielder in history) consisted of “The Team of All Talents.” Sunderland was feared even before they entered the Football League in 1889 and signed the previously mentioned players. They demolished big dogs Aston Villa 7–2 in April of 1890, and one year prior, beat the shit out of “The Invincibles”, Preston North End. After those two games, Sunderland was given their moniker by William McGregor (the founder of the English Football League) and inducted into the Football League for the 1890–91 season.
We have to thank Royal Arsenal for so many football treats already that we need not hesitate to acknowledge what is perhaps the greatest of them all; a visit the famous Sunderland Club. The team of all the talents play at Plumstead on 25 April.
- The Star (London)
Sunderland was quickly becoming beloved. After getting their feet wet for their first two seasons in the Football League, they torched everybody en route to three titles in four seasons. All of this would culminate to the 1895 World Championship, which pitted English title holder Sunderland versus Scottish title holder Hearts.
At this point in time, Scotland were innovators of the game compared to England. They knew how to set up offside traps, which Hearts were the masters of, and were prophets that foresaw how important passing was to the game. Most English teams just knew how to fling their asses all over the pitch and impose themselves physically. Sunderland knew first hand how good these Scottish players were. Most of the friendlies played before their maiden campaign in the Football League were against Scottish teams. Famously, Samuel Tyzack, the co-funder of Sunderland A.F.C, would slip on a dog collar and impersonate a priest in order to scout out Scottish players behind enemy lines. So when they had the chance to buy some, boy did they take advantage, perhaps even edging on overkill.
Yep. Every single one of Sunderland’s starters were Scottish exports. They had no shame. I mean hell look at the trophies they won, who cares if the players were all Scottish. I mean Scottish fans were rightly pissed but hey, scoreboard. Looking back, Sunderland of all clubs were perhaps the first to utilize the transfer market to this degree. Manchester City, Chelsea, eat your heart out. This wouldn’t be the first time Sunderland would be the big spenders.
In 1898, Sunderland would move to Roker Park, a much better-suited stadium than Newcastle Road (where Sunderland had been playing for the past few years). They wouldn’t waste any time bringing silverware to their new home with a title in the 1901–‘02 season. The OG Team of All Talents would make way for the next generation, which was led by English striker Charlie Buchan (the second-highest goalscorer in Sunderland history with 222 goals). He would bring another title to Roker Park in the ‘12–‘13 season. Once he transferred to Arsenal (where he began his career) in ’25, he was preceded by Sunderland’s all-time leading scorer, striker Bobby Gurney (228 goals) that same year. Sunderland would have a slight championship drought thanks to the first World War and some very close finishes in the ‘22-’23 and ‘23–’24 seasons, but they would take home their final Football League championship in the 1935-‘36 season. Fun fact: this Sunderland team is the last stripped jersey team to win an English title. I’m not lying I swear.
During this championship season, Sunderland drew 3–3 with Chelsea, with goalkeeper Jimmy Thorpe between the sticks. At the age of 22, he was seen as a building block for Sunderland and even the English national team. The sky was the limit. During this game, he made some sensational saves Sunderland fans had grown accustomed to, but something was obviously off later in the second half. He let two uncharacteristically easy goals past him, one off a rebound and another off a mishandled backpass. He looked disoriented, hazy, and at times, clinching a bump on his head while leaning against his goalpost. Many didn’t know Thrope’s life was in jeopardy. Just minutes before those goals, Thrope was on the receiving end of various violent kicks to the head and upper torso from Chelsea players as he protected the ball after claiming it in the penalty area, with the referee H.S. Warr refusing to put a stop to the assault. The referee would be escorted by police after the game in fears he would be attacked as well from rightfully aggravated fans.
This was the hazardous life of a goalkeeper in this era. Outfield players had the right to try to reclaim the ball in this manner. Two goalkeepers died in the span of 1921 to 1931, a testament of how dangerous it was to lineup between the sticks. 24-year-old Dumbarton keeper Joshua Wilkinson and 22-year-old Celtic keeper John Thompson were cut down in the prime of their lives, and especially in the case of Thompson, as he was seen as potentially the greatest goalkeeper of all time. Football didn’t need another tragedy but we got one nonetheless. Thrope would miraculously finish the game but because nobody knew how dire his situation, he was blasted by the local newspapers.
Atrocious goalkeeping cost Sunderland a point… Thorpe has shown some excellent goalkeeping this season, but he seldom satisfies me when the ball is crossed. On Saturday his failures had an entirely different origin…
- The Sunderland Echo
He would die four days later from diabetes mellitus (which by itself was almost a death sentence in that era, although he was able to use essentially the beta version of insulin) and heart failure, all of which were accelerated because of the injuries he suffered that match. The FA would clear Chelsea and the referee of any charges, which made Sunderland the scapegoat for their own player’s death. “For fielding a player in poor health.” Even though he played 59 games in a row and received insulin. The FA did, however, decide to implement some guidelines to protect goalkeepers. That no player should be allowed to raise his foot towards a goalkeeper in possession of the ball. In 2011, 75 years after Jimmy’s death, Chelsea and Sunderland would meet yet again in the Premier League. Both goalkeepers would don black wristbands in honor of him. Chelsea’s Petr Cech, who he himself suffered a life-threatening head injury that forced him to always don his trademark rugby helmet, served as yet another example of how dangerous the position can still be. Thrope’s widow would receive his Football League medal. Up until 2011, Thrope’s grave was unmarked, a travesty that was rectified by football historian John Kelter and Thrope’s remaining family. He would be inducted into the Sunderland Hall of Fame.
The post World War 2 era was dicey. Roker Park would be the victim of a random bombing, thus needing repairs. Sunderland assumed their status yet again as the big spender. They would spend big on names like forward Len Shackleton and center forward Trevor Ford for a then record fee of £30,000. Legendary players in their own right. Only problem? They fucking hated each other. Yet again, Sunderland was villainized for their spending. They soon became known as the “Bank of England Club”, a term that would be used for other teams with strong financial backing like Arsenal in the ’20s and ’30s, and Everton in the ’70s. It's safe to say modern Manchester City belongs in that category too. Although Sunderland would make a title chase in 1950, where they finished third, they had no silverware to show for it. Shackleton, who was a big believer in entertaining the crowd thus leading into his nickname, the “Clown Prince of Football”, openly said that all of the recent expensive signings were not enough to build a classy side. They didn’t gel together. It would be a revolving door of sales and big purchases. Things would only get worse. Sunderland would almost get relegated in the 1956–‘57 season but that was just the surface level of their issues.
It was soon discovered that Sunderland had been slipping players money under the table, knowing there was a maximum wage in place. And it all started with a letter from “Mr. Smith.” It was believed to be either an undisclosed director or former player, be it from a result of power struggles or jealousy over how much money was being thrown. Either way, someone narked and Sunderland received the Negan treatment, the biggest punishment seen so far in the Football League. They were fined £5,000, the biggest at this point, three of the directors were banned sine die, and five players were given sine die bans (although they would be replaced by lesser punishments after confessing they did in fact receive payments). The manager at the time, Bill Murray, was fined but he would end up resigning. Although he didn’t win any silverware, he was a 28-year stalwart who guided the club during and after World War 2 so it was still a massive loss. One year later, Sunderland would be relegated for the first time in their history. The club was in tatters. While plenty of other clubs were known to be paying under the table, Sunderland received the brunt end of the bat (I’ll stop with the Walking Dead references). To pour salt in the wound, in 1962, the maximum wage was abolished and the High Court ruled that the FA acted irresponsibly when it came to handling this whole ordeal. So it was for nothing. All the while Sunderland were languishing in the Second Division. Cool.
So, let’s fast forward to the modern-day. Not much happened between that first relegation and now. Sunderland would famously win the FA Cup as a second-tier team in 1973, which was very wholesome for the community, but that would be the last piece of silverware they would ever win to this day. That honeymoon phase of FA Cup victory would disappear quickly.
They would yo-yo from the Second Division and First Division and even spend one season in the Third Division in ’87 before getting promoted straight back up. A far cry from the glory days, even during World War 2. Perhaps the biggest moment was the demolition of Roker Park and Sunderland moving to the brand new Stadium of Light in 1997. While the Stadium of Light was the largest capacity stadium in England at the time, seating 42,000 then increasing to 49,000, fans were more-so negative to the move. An emotional play called I Left My Heart at Roker Park was created and actor Peter O’Toole famously said the move made him less of a fan of Sunderland. Many saw it as the heart of the club dissolving. But, in reality, the club itself was dissolving in the most embarrassing way possible.
In the ‘02-‘03 Premier League season, they would muster only 19 points and 21 goals all season with an abhorrent -44 goal difference. They had plenty of club legends there at the time such as striker Kevin Phillips, left back Michael Gray, defensive mid Julio Arca, and center mid Claudio Reyna. Phillips, who was two years off his European Golden Boot season where he scored 30 goals alongside fellow club legend striker Niall Quinn, was theoretically being tossed out the door by manager Peter Reid. He only scored six goals and would leave Sunderland for Southampton immediately after relegation. Quinn would retire in October. Reyna would tear his ACL in October and join Manchester City the next season. Arca would have nagging injuries all year. Then here comes club captain Michael Gray flexing in his new Ferrari at training, immediately after Sunderland were relegated. Manager Mick McCarthy would fine him and stripe him of the captaincy. Speaking of that, Sunderland would go through three managers that dismal year. Peter Reid would get the sack early in October. Howard Wilkinson in return won two games in 20 outings, so he was given the boot in March. McCarthy was an innocent casualty as a result of severe incompetence from the previous two managers. He would inspire Sunderland to a Championship playoff spot in ‘03-‘04 followed by promotion in ‘04–‘05. If any game represented Sunderland’s ’03 season, it was their match vs Charlton Athletic. They scored four goals! Only problem? Three of them were own goals as they lost 3–1,
The Sunderland squad in the ‘05-‘06 season was flat out alien compared to the previous Premier League season. No Phillips, no Quinn, nobody. Arca was the only familiar name. So Sunderland desperately needed some additional firepower for the impending relegation struggle. Their marquee signing would be striker Jon Stead for £1.8 from Blackburn Rovers. He was fresh off a TWO GOAL SEASON at Blackburn where he made 29 appearances. Marquee signing my ass. Mind you, this is the same summer that saw Darren Bent move from Ipswich to Charlton Athletic for £2.5 mil, Scott Parker from Chelsea to rivals Newcastle for £6.5 mil, Park Ji-Sung from PSV to Manchester United for £4m, and Shawn Wright Phillips from Manchester City to Chelsea for £21m. Stead was joined by striker Andy Gray in a £1.1m deal from Sheffield United. Stead surely could do better than his two-goal effort the previous year and prove his “marquee” status. He would score a goal. That’s it. One singular goal in THIRTY APPEARANCES. Worse than the year before. Well, what about Gray? Surely he would fare better, he did after all hit 25 in 58 appearances for United. Again, only one goal. In his debut. Where they lost 3–1 to Charlton Athletic. And guess who had a brace that game? Darren Bent (this was far from the last time we would hear from this man). 14 points was another record low in the Premier League. McCarthy was given the sack in February. Sunderland bested their own record. Despite this historically bad relegation, Sunderland still managed to get loyal asses in the Stadium of Light seats, despite other fans making fun of the empty away seats. At least Derby County would show them what it truly means to be shit two seasons later. But for Sunderland, this wasn’t even close to the lowest point in the club’s history.
Like the 2003 relegation, Sunderland wouldn’t stay in the Championship for long. Former Manchester United legend Roy Keene would take over as manager with an iron fist and bring Sunderland back up as champions of the Championship, even after Nial Quinn’s horrible start (he served as caretaker after McCarthy’s sack, and lost his first four matches). He began a trend of signing any Manchester United reject he could find. Right-back Phil Bardsley, an aging Dwight York, left-back Kirian Richardson, and center back Paul McShane were among all the permanent signings as well as loan signings of right-back Danny Simpson and center-back Jonny Evans. Fun fact: Keane signed Evans because he beat the shit out of someone during a fight in the Man United dining area while he was still there.
Sunderland would survive their first season back in the Premier League with an unimpressive 15th place finish but Roy Keane had built a very intimidating environment to be in. Imagine former NFL head coach Tom Coughlin times three, and without the championships. He enforced very strict guidelines, and this culminated to him putting midfielder Liam Miller (yet another former Manchester United player) on the transfer list for being late to training, despite the fact he was one of the most consistent performers at that point. Keane would leave in December of the ’08-‘09 season but something else happened that would come back to bite Sunderland in the ass years later. Ellis Short buys the club.
The next few years would be a revolving door of uninspiring managers and survival. With more money in the bank, Sunderland showed flashes of their Bank of England Club past and bought a familiar name for £10 million. Darren Bent. They missed out on him once. They wouldn’t miss again. He would score 24 goals in the ‘09-’10 season, which was third in the Premier League. They would also buy defensive mid Lee Cattermole and more importantly, give homegrown midfielder Jordan Henderson a shot at the first team. He would go on to win the Sunderland young player of the year award twice in a row. Sunderland would finish 13th in the ‘09-’10 season and 10th in the ‘10-’11 season. Things were looking up, right? 10th would be the highest position they would finish in the 2010s. Bent would be sold in the winter transfer window of the ‘10-’11 season to Aston Villa. Recent record signing Asamoah Gyan was there to soften the blow, but he would take off on loan to Al Ain that following September to enjoy a nice payday, spending only one full season at Sunderland. Two time Young Player of The Year Jordan Henderson was off to do great things at Liverpool. Even without Keane at the helm, Sunderland still felt like getting old Manchester United players so they signed aging defending duo Wes Brown and John O’Shea. Speaking of Manchester United, Sunderland would (somewhat) play spoiler during Manchester City’s iconic, first Premier League title. They would make fun of the United fans despite the fact they lost 1–0, mimicking Poznan celebration City fans do. Like any Telltale game ever made, Manchester United fans would remember this. Sir Alex Ferguson remembered this. In due time.
Steve Bruce would be let go during that year, then Martin O’Neal took over, who would get sacked next March in the ‘12-’13 season for Paolo Di Canio, who himself would get sacked that September after selling literally everyone (goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, attacking midfielder Stéphane Sessègnon, winger James McClean) and buying tons of new faces that didn’t gel.
And while I want to talk about how much a tyrant Di Canio was towards his players (ironic knowing he supports fascism), the nature of his sacking, and how Ellis Short was really starting to show his incompetence, we really need to talk about one of the main reasons why people love to make fun of Sunderland. A parting gift from Martin O’Neal. The signing of Adam Johnson.
During that Manchester City title race, Johnson was a decent figure for the Citizens, scoring six goals and dishing out six assists primary as a substitute. He would sigh for Sunderland (his hometown club by the way) on August 24th for £10m and was seen as a cornerstone piece alongside Scottish striker Steven Fletcher in their bid for a top ten finish. Obviously that couldn’t have been more wrong, as Sunderland finished 17th with O’Neal getting yeeted in March. Johnson was ok for Sunderland, scoring here and there, occasionally getting benched for poor form, but he did end up winning the Premier League Player of The Month award in January of 2014. But again, we’re not here to talk about how he was an average player in a consistently relegation-threatened side. In December 2014, he began talking to a 15-year-old fan on social media, all the while his partner being pregnant. In January, he would meet said fan, sign two jerseys, and end up kissing her. He would be arrested in a year's time in March under suspicions of having sexual activity with a minor. In April, the charges were released. Three offenses of sexual activity with a child under 16 and one of child grooming. He ended up pleading guilty to one offense of sexual activity with a minor and the grooming charge. When he was arrested, then Manager Gus Poyet suspended him. Days later, Poyet would be sacked with Dutch Manager Dick Advocate filling in. He would allow Johnson back in the side after missing two matches, even as he continued to plead not guilty to the charges. He even played into the next season but picked up an injury that knocked him out until October, with Big Sam Allardyce filling in as manager. His final game was on February 6th, 2016, the weekend before his big trial. In this trial, he admitted he told Sunderland of his charges and the fact he kissed the minor in May 2015. It was even discovered that he had extreme animal porn on his laptop. Yikes. Yet Sunderland continued to let him trot along on the Stadium of Light pitch all this time. Mega yikes. They did cut ties after he pleaded guilty but it was a year too late. Manager Sam Allardyce and Sunderland chief executive Margaret Byrne were cast as extremely suspect in terms of their knowledge of the case and why they continued to field him. Many saw this case as damaging to football’s reputation. To add some extra fuel to the fire, it was discovered that Sunderland had one of the most dangerous young hooligan fanbases, who were constantly getting into brawls.
His sentence was for six years, but he was released on March 22nd, 2019 on parole. Safe to say he’s never playing football again.
Despite Johnson’s antics, the revolving door of Sunderland managers continued. Poyet being sacked, then Advocaat’s resignation in October, then the resignation of Big Sam. With the three managers came their own preferences in players and that played a huge part in the transfer market. Poyet loved Inter Milan loanee Ricky Alvarez (which would end up costing close to £20m because of weird legal disputes) and left-back Patrick Van Aanholt. He even managed to pull off the trade of the century by shipping off our friend Jozy Altidore back to the MLS for Premier League veteran Jermain Defoe, easily the best part of the 2010s for Sunderland. With it came one of the best wins over rivals Newcastle United in the Tyne-Wear Derby in 2015. He would miss horribly on one signing though.
Advocaat loved Dutch winger Jeremain Lens, former Tottenham center back Younès Kaboul, and Ruben Kaizen loanee CDM Yann M’Vila. Allardyce made some big signings in center back Lamine Kone and attacking mid Wahbi Khazri, and he oversaw the relegation of rivals Newcastle United. Those Magpie fans would distinctly remember the chirping from all the Sunderland fans in due time. Thousands upon thousands of “enjoy Burton Albion away.”
All three performed miraculous Great Escapes where it seemed destined for Sunderland to get relegated. We would get some sick moments though.
Fairweather Premier League and Sunderland fans alike were getting sick of Sunderland constantly surviving by the skin of their teeth after months of mediocre play and horrible decision making. One such is example is the botched effort of M’Vila’s permanent transfer on deadline day. Sunderland didn’t answer the phone. Many players were left unhappy in the midst of all the Manager changes. Well, we would get one more that was already messing things up. The one who froze Lens out and didn’t answer the phone for M’Villa. David Moyes.
This is where our story takes a sharp downturn. Allardyce left the Sunderland job to become the England national team manager, so David Moyes was hired. Moyes was run out of town by Manchester United, he is the third shortest term manager in their history, after all, lasting just ten months. He caused Man United to fall outside the top three for the first time in their Premier League history and fail to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since ‘95. The defeatist manager began a mad sweep of the weirdest transfers ever. Gone were the good performers in M’Vila, Lens, and Van Aanholt. In came the Everton B team. Out of prime Everton veterans Joleon Lescott, Darron Gibson, Steven Pienaar, and Victor Anichebe were signed alongside more Manchester United rejects in Donald Love, Adnan Januzaj, and Patty McNair. Everton left-back Brian Oviedo would replace Van Aanholt. Lorient center mid Didier N’Dong would become Sunderland’s record signing at £13,600,000, but he didn’t hold a candle to M’Vila. The good news is that Jermaine Defoe had yet another spectacular season, scoring 15 goals for a Sunderland side that lacked playmakers to help him. The bad news? Sunderland didn’t record a win until November. The ugly? They were relegated to the Championship, ending their ten-year stay in the Premier League. 24 points. -42 goal differential. Hey, at least they didn’t break the record for the worst Premier League season again.
Wonder who scored that game to knock Sunderland out? Norwegian striker Josh King. A Manchester United youth product.
Remember when I told you that Manchester United fans hated what Sunderland fans did to them back when Manchester City won their first title? Remember when Newcastle fans had to withstand the constant heckling from Sunderland when they were relegated (they ended up getting promoted straight back up)? Commence the shithousery. And fans from other clubs joined in on the fun too.
Sensing a correlation here huh? To put things in a bit of perspective, when Newcastle was relegated, their “relegation tweet” received 677 retweets and 357 likes. Most of the ridicule was from Newcastle fans themselves and the multiple Sunderland fans enjoying their brief moment in the sun. Sunderland’s tweet exploded like a nuclear bomb on a 10-year countdown. 3.8k retweets (1k of those being quote tweets), 2.6k likes, and 709 replies. Everyone wanted to come and shit on Sunderland AFC. So you must be thinking, if Newcastle were relegated and managed to jump straight back up, Sunderland can do the very same right? It’s almost a given they’ll lose their most valuable players in Jermaine Defoe and exciting young goalkeeper Jordan Pickford but they still had some great players in Jermaine Lens, Fabio Borini, and Lamine Kone. For a moment, Lens was destined to stay and destroy Championship defenders as he did during the preseason. They still had the leadership of club stalwarts Lee Cattermole and captain John O’Shea.
Many were tipping them to win the EFL Championship outright, or at least promotion via the playoffs. Fate, and perhaps karma, had other plans.
A mad exodus happened. It’d be better for me to post a picture than to list everyone in this instance.
They lost almost every goalkeeper (Mika was still there but they would cut him in the winter) but they would find new names like Dutch stopper Robin Ruiter and Jason Steele. The dream of Lens terrorizing the Championship was over, but they would bring in Irish skill master Aidan McGeady on a surprisingly cheap transfer and striker Lewis Grabban on loan from Bournemouth to lead the attack. They miraculously managed to hold on to their record signing N’Dong (maybe because he wasn’t all that great). The youth products like strikers Joel Asoro, Josh Maja, and midfielders Lyndon Gooch (love that name so much) and Geroge Honeyman were ready to strike too. They started decently, drawing their first game vs Derby County and winning at Norwich City 3–1. Things were looking up. They wouldn’t win another game until November 25th vs Burton Albion. They lost four in a row from August 19th to September 12th, getting outscored 8–1. With a 2–2 draw vs Milwall, Sunderland broke a record for consecutive games without a win at home, almost a full calendar year. What the fuck was going on?
They had a MAJOR goalkeeping problem. Scoring goals with Grabban and McGeady was no problem. It was conceding dumbass goals like the ones seen in that Milwall draw. And that was the story of Sunderland in their Championship campaign. Lots of draws that shouldn’t have happened. 3–3 and 2–2 draws were the norm. It happened seven times for crying out loud! When they lost, it was always a bloodbath. 3–0 to Barnsley. 5–2 to Ipswich. 4–0 to Cardiff City! Simon Grayson would be sacked on October 31st (spooky) with former Wales manager Chris Coleman taking over. Some new names like goalkeeper Lee Camp and Premier League youngsters Ovie Ejaria and Jake Clark-Salter joined in the winter on loan but no purchases. Ellis Short gave up. Nothing changed on the pitch.
One key name would leave though. Lewis Grabban. After scoring 12 goals, he would be recalled by Bournemouth and be sent to promotion-chasing Aston Villa on loan. Sunderland had no replacements and refused to get one. Grabben would end up being the top goal scorer despite only playing half a season. The defeats kept on piling up. Sunderland would only win twice after the winter transfer deadline passed. And the once-mighty Sunderland would be done in by a name they yelled to the clouds when Newcastle was relegated. Burton Albion. And by none other than Darren Bent, who said he expressed regret over his exit from Sunderland. His celebration says otherwise.
Sunderland was relegated to League One, aka the third division, for the first time since 1987 and the first time in their Premier League history. Again, cue the shithousery.
There was no remorse. Even if a rare fan showed sympathy, another would jump in and shit on Sunderland. And you know what makes this even worse, depressing, and more hilarious at the same time? A documentary was made for them. Sunderland Til I Die.
If that show [Manchester City’s Amazon documentary All Or Nothing] turned out to be a weirdly bland affair that suffered from the all-conquering brilliance of its subject, then Sunderland ‘Til I Die is its exact inverse: a close-quarters account of bleak and unrelenting failure, and a quietly magnetic watch.
- Alex Hess, The Independent
They had access to everything with the intention of filming a successful season that led to promotion, and hopefully a high-quality bid to buy the club. They got the exact opposite. We got front row seats to an absolute shit show that maybe no other team can top. For fans of other teams, especially Manchester United or Newcastle fans, it was a top tier comedy show. For Sunderland fans, just added reasons to be depressed. We saw the sheer panic and dread in the winter transfer window. The depressed people of Sunderland who only knew pain. The overall tragedy of the club. The distraught players who wondered what the fuck they got themselves into. Drunk Darren Gibson. We saw how owner Ellis Short was like a deadbeat dad that refused to pay child support because of how much he was absent. Then we saw Gus Poyet’s greatest mistake, even if it wasn’t his fault. Someone rotting on the training bench collecting an undeserving Premier League wage in the Championship. Jack Rodwell.
Rodwell was signed by Poyet and Sunderland on August 5th, 2014 from Manchester City for £10m. At the time, the 23-year-old Rodwell was seen as a player with immense, untapped potential that wasn’t realized at City. People still had his great seasons at Everton in mind. Originally a defender, David Moyes let him play more of an advanced defensive mid position at Everton and he shined there. He would go on to sign for City in 2012 for £15m but his game time was inconsistent, and he developed a bit of an injury bug. Which leads us to Sunderland. For £10m, this was seen as an absolute bargain initially. Some viewed him as vastly superior to Ross Barkley while having the technical ability of Wayne Rooney. Someone get Freezing Cold Takes on the line. His Premier League time with Sunderland was very middling. He would rotate from being a bench warmer to starter time and time again. He would score the odd goal or provide the odd assist but he was far from being Sunderland’s most influential player. He was injured a lot too. Some even say he was a detriment to the squad. Every time the man started, there was a good chance Sunderland lost. Rodwell had a 39 game losing streak whenever he started. That’s 1,370 days. Yikes. He would finally win one but it was a very bad look for him. When Sunderland was relegated to the Championship, various players had clauses in their contracts that reduced their wages by 40% in the event Sunderland was eventually relegated. Rodwell didn’t. His agent pulled a fast one. He refused to take a pay cut from his £70,000 wages. He would score in his first game in the Championship vs Sheffield United in September but it would be months before we heard from him again. That is until CEO Martin Bayne approached him in January to jumpstart a move away from the club, which we can see in the Sunderland Til I Die documentary.
I’ve had a chat with Jack, and I said to Jack, ‘Be a man, you’re 26-years-of-age, go and kickstart your career. Tell me, is it about playing football or is it about money? Tell me, which is it?
Jack said, ‘It’s about playing football.’
But look around you. Look at the state the club is in. Maybe go play football somewhere else.
Then Rodwell said this to the Daily Mail:
I haven’t put in a transfer request but I understand the club’s stance and their position and, because of that, I understand it’s beneficial for everyone if I move on.
But it’s not the fault of any footballer if a club decides to pay you a certain amount. I have worked from seven years old to get here; to then ask someone to just throw it away, that’s difficult.
So, he knew he was a detriment to the club knowing he had abhorrent wages compared to others in the second division and the fact he wasn’t playing but wasn’t fully committed to leaving. Hmmmm. If he would have terminated his contract, Sunderland would have been able to sign four to five free agents or loan players they desperately needed, fully knowing Ellis Short stopped investing in the club.
Safe to say that didn’t happen. What makes this story even weirder is that Rodwell is back in the Premier League with Sheffield United, recently signing a one year extension. Granted, he is as far down the depth chart as humanly possible and fans still call him a waste of space but his dream of returning to the Premier League did come true. I guess. What makes this even worse is that Rodwell wasn’t the only one doing this. Didier N’Dong and center back Papy Djilobodji (I know I didn’t mention him but he stunk and cost a lot, not much to talk about) went flat out went AWOL, leading to a very toxic separation.
Although it was the exact opposite thing new owner Stewart Donald wanted, he ended up being a false dawn for Sunderland in League One. Sunderland would lose in the playoff final to Charlton Athletic in the ’18-‘19 season, losing out on promotion to the Championship. They lost in the EFL Cup Final to Portsmouth. The next season would be the worst in Sunderland’s history in terms of placement in the league before COVID put them out of their misery. 8th place in League One. For context, the one other season Sunderland spent in the third division, they were promoted back up as champions.
Youngsters were leaving like wildfire. Swedish striker Joel Asoro left for Swansea before the season started. Nigerian striker Josh Maja famously left Sunderland for Bordeaux after scoring 15 league goals. He would receive tons of backlash for this. It was a tough choice for him to be fair. Sunderland didn’t go all in for him, and he left to join a top side in France, but if he stayed, he would have for sure fired Sunderland to promotion and assert himself already as a beloved Sunderland legend. Now he’s a villain, much like Asoro. Newly-appointed captain George Honeyman left for Hull, who are now in League One. American Lyndon Gooch is still there though (he’ll be a Sunderland legend at the end of the day, he’s already made over 100 appearances and he’s still only 24). Teenage sensation Bali Mumba recently left for Norwich for a transfer fee equivalent to a ham sandwich and fans let loose. But not towards Bali. Remember, this was the player John O’Shea handed the captains armband to during their last match in the Championship, making him the youngest player to ever captain Sunderland. He was seen as the future alongside Maja but wasn’t given the time of day. They wanted Donald’s head.
With each youngster's departure came rash and desperate decisions. When Maja left, Donald spent £3m on Will Grigg, making him the most expensive League One player ever. And the funny thing is, the last thing Donald wanted was to seem desperate trying to buy him. He tried six times. What has the return been? Five goals in 42 games. He went all-in on a meme (I’m sure you’ve heard the Will Grigg is on fire chant before). Tough. With each youngster leaving comes players way past their prime. 34-year-old Grant Leadbitter, who started his career with Sunderland and even broke into the team after Sunderland’s horrific relegation in 2006 and revival under Roy Keane, joined during their first season in League One and was named captain when Honeyman and Cattermole left. Then there’s Danny Graham. He signed for Sunderland in the winter of 2013 for £5m. He was comically bad for the team, scoring only one goal in 37 appearances. He spent a ton of time on loan because he was of no use to the first team. Now, at the ripe age of 35, he’s back at Sunderland after admittingly doing fairly well for Blackburn Rovers (45 goals in 145 appearances). We’ve come full circle. A player once hated during the Premier League days is being counted on to help save them in their most trying time. You can’t make this shit up. The definition of comedic tragedy.
Despite all of this, Sunderland has perhaps the most die-hard fanbase in England, maybe even in world football. It’s a hot take for sure, but hear me out. Would you stay a fan of this team with the relegations, terrible spending, et cetera? For example, for an American, you can easily just choose another team. I’ll come out and say it. I counted myself as a casual Sunderland fan because of their underdog nature, then when they got relegated, I became a Leicester fan because I fell in love with their Premier League title season. People in the northeast of England don’t have that luxury. It’s their hometown team. It's family. You don’t abandon family (maybe unless you’re Aaron Rodgers, a unique case). They take everything the club throws at them yet they fill the seats of the Stadium of Light, a Premier League caliber Stadium in League One. Let that sink in.
In League One, Sunderland still averaged 30,279 people at home games. This is better than Brighton, Crystal Palace, Burnley, and recently relegated Watford. Not to mention every single Championship club. They recorded the highest attendance outside the Premier League in nearly sixty years. 46,036 came for Bradford City on Boxing Day. A Premier League crowd in League One. Ever since their promotion in 2007, they consistently averaged 40k, even reaching 43k in certain seasons, which again, ranked among the best in the Premier League. Yeah these fans were depressed and angry and some can even be hooligans who get arrested, but boy do they love their club. A club that is technically one of the most successful clubs of all time, but has a history filled with senseless spending, death, a certain pedophile, deadbeat dad esq owners, and depression caused by inept managers and players. So, many onlooking fans will laugh and point, but they will never be as loyal as these ones. And when Sunderland are back, whether it's in a few years or decades, who will be laughing now? Its been done before. Leeds. Wolves. Sheffield United. All clubs that have had their fair shares of troubles. All have been relegated to the third tier at some point and clawed their way back to the Premier League. Why not Sunderland? Like it or not, without them, we’re missing a key piece of English football’s history. Jump on the bandwagon. I dare you.