Why play-off final against Charlton could define Sunderland for years

Updated: 10/06/2023


Just over a year ago Jack Ross was on holiday in Dubai with his family searching for his hotel’s business centre. He needed a fax machine: Sunderland had just sent over a contract he had to sign.

He went looking for his wife. She was by the pool talking to someone. Ross did not want to interrupt. His children were splashing around. He worried about the fax getting wet. “Surreal”, was his verdict.

Not long after that, on the first day of Sunderland’s pre-season training, 11 players turned up.

Inheriting a mess

Ross had joined a club that had just suffered the whack of back-to-back relegations; there was new ownership although the previous owner Ellis Short remained in the background; there was concern about debts, players, ticket sales and the state of the Stadium of Light. And, for only the second time in their 128-year League history, Sunderland were about to embark on a season in the third division. Surreal is one description.

“Challenging”, was another term Ross found this week. He used “terrific” too but, notably, when asked for an overall review of Sunderland’s year of living precariously, Ross began his answer with an If.

“If we get the right result on Sunday,” the 42 year-old Scot said, “it’s been hugely productive for us.”

Ross said the brutal nature of football judgment means if Sunderland win on Sunday against Charlton at Wembley, their season will be considered a success. Lose, and as goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin said, “it’ll be seen as a failure”.

It will be Sunderland’s 61st game of a season punctuated by international call-ups, postponements and progress to the Checkatrade Trophy final. But Sunderland kept drawing – 19 times – not winning. They ended up fifth, and, ominously, won just two of their last nine matches. It did not reflect well on a squad containing talents such as Aiden McGeady.

Economic challenges

But perhaps it was a fair reflection of the mess Ross inherited. Those who did not turn up on that first day included £13.5m Didier Ndong and £8m Papy Djilobodji, two David Moyes’ signings.

Eventually their contracts were terminated. £73,000 per week Jack Rodwell also left.

Lamine Kone, signed by Sam Allardyce, was loaned to Strasbourg but Sunderland still had to cover a percentage of his wages. Contracted to June 2021, Kone will return. Josh Maja, who might have scored the goals to assure automatic promotion, was sold.

Those players and situations had economic repercussions. A question raised on purchase was whether new owner Stewart Donald could afford to maintain Sunderland.

Only £5m was paid up front to Short with £35m due on top. Premier League parachute payments have been used to part-fund this. The last parachute arrives around August. Last year it was estimated at £16m and was said to have already been allocated for legacy transfer fees.

It all means Sunderland require fresh investment and a summer sale would be no surprise. Championship status would help that.

Amid all this Sunderland fans have produced an average attendance higher than 11 Premier League clubs and all but two in the Championship.

They have not seen their side win at Wembley since the famous 1973 FA Cup final against Leeds. Another loss might eat into desire to travel to Lincoln and Bury next season.

Brutal it may be, Saturday could shape Sunderland for years.

This post first appeared here

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