David Moyes can only avoid the ghost of Big Sam for so long

Words By Conor Kelly
October 27, 2016
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When David Moyes was appointed Sunderland manager in July, chairman Ellis Short couldn’t hide his satisfaction. “He is a man whose football pedigree speaks for itself and is someone I have long admired. He was my number one managerial target for the last five appointments … It is our aim to become a better, stronger and more stable football club.” After years of pursuit, Short had nabbed his man. For his part, Moyes felt that this was his opportunity to move on from the turmoil of Manchester United and Real Sociedad, but so far the marriage has proved unhappy.

Sunderland have undergone years of upheaval, descending towards Championship oblivion before divine intervention (a change of manager, mostly) has kept them afloat. On the back of the excellent job he did at Everton over a prolonged period, Moyes was seen as the ideal man to provide some stability and finally help propel the club forward. As previous incumbents have discovered though, the task at the Stadium of Light is even greater than imagined.

A few weeks ago, Sunderland’s official twitter account shared a video of Moyes conducting a training session. The players were attempting the rondo, a drill made famous by Barcelona, in which they one touch pass in a circle as one defender tries to retrieve the ball in the middle. The word ‘attempting’ is key here; in the near minute long clip, not one pass was completed – much to the bemusement of supporters on social media. ‘LOL, so it’s not just in games that we can’t pass to each other’ was one particularly nuanced response.

The thing is, they appear to have done just that, carrying an alarming ineptitude into matches. Sunderland have made their worst start to a Premier League campaign ever, which is quite an achievement bearing in mind their habit of disregarding form pre-Christmas (they are still awaiting their first league win in August since 2010). Seven defeats and two draws have left the Mackems at the foot of the table, five points adrift of safety. Signed in 2014, Jack Rodwell has yet to be on the winning side in a red and white shirt.

On Saturday, they held their own against West Ham, until Moyes’ conservatism kicked in. With ten minutes remaining and level in the game, the Scot withdrew Steven Pienaar and Wahbi Khazri in favour of the more defensively minded Paddy McNair and Billy Jones. It cost him dearly, as they retreated and retreated, before Winston Reid popped up with the winner for Slaven Bilic’s side.

Afterwards, Moyes maintained that he was thinking beyond just this season and expressed the hope that the board would invest heavily in rebuilding his squad in January. “Everyone wants a quick fix and everybody who has managed here in recent years has been in fire-fighting mode,” he said. “I am fire-fighting too but I have to look at it more long term as well. The plan is to put things in place – like signing young players not just to keep us up but to go on the journey – to take things forward.”

It took Moyes years to rebuild Everton from relegation battlers into perennial European contenders, and it will clearly require similar time in the North-East. There must be a question mark over whether he will get that patience. If Sunderland’s autumnal malaise is nothing new, neither is the prospect of them changing managers in the new year. In fact, over the past half-decade, a ‘Sunderland cycle’ has occurred with uncanny regularity.

It begins with Sunderland playing abysmally and dropping to the foot of the table. Autumn freezes to winter and they appear doomed. The manager is sacked, his replacement wins the derby against Newcastle and miraculously keeps them in the division. That summer, half the squad is cleared out and 11 or 12 signings are made. The season starts afresh, Sunderland drop to the bottom of the league, the manager goes and the ‘Sunderland cycle’ restarts.

This was the case for Martin O’Neill, Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet and Dick Advocaat. The only manager to avoid this cycle was Sam Allardyce, who brought some semblance of cohesion and initiated the process of building foundations. Big Sam was lured away when his dream of managing England came to fruition, a dream which ended abruptly due to his involvement in the Telegraph’s investigation of corruption in English football.

The FA’s imagine conscious governance doesn’t necessarily apply to clubs. In the past, Short has hired one open fascist and another suspended by his previous club for breach of contract – so Allardyce returning wouldn’t be a stretch. He is also popular amongst fans, owing to his spells as a player and coach. Allardyce has earned a reputation for keeping clubs in the top flight, and the odds would favour him repeating the trick in May 2017.

Either way, the upcoming months at Sunderland should be newsworthy. There were murmurs last week that Chinese investors were willing to buy a majority stake, something the American billionaire has denied. Short maintains that his ambition for the club hasn’t wavered, so it will be intriguing to see how strongly he invests in the next transfer window. For his part, Moyes is already focussing on the bigger picture. Manager and owner may well be planning long-term, but as much as they profess to otherwise, they are struggling to avoid the ghost of Big Sam.

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