Hull City and Sunderland languish in the post-Premier League darkness

Words By John Brewin Illustration by Philippe Fenner
February 12, 2018

There was a momentary warming of the chill winds that whip both Sunderland and Hull City on Saturday afternoon.

From the depths of being 3-0 down at Bristol City, Sunderland pulled back to 3-3, a last-minute equaliser sealing a recovery that was swiftly named “BRISTANBUL” by a fan on social media. That was appropriated by the club’s Twitter account, which 40 minutes into the game had been sympathising with travelling Mackems who had made for the exits after City’s third goal.

“To be perfectly honest, you can’t blame them,” it read, before being swiftly deleted, presumably on the orders of someone on high in the media department. Typical chaos, then, from Sunderland. From boasting Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey as his star players with the Welsh national team, Chris Coleman is struggling. Four wins since his November 17 arrival have given his team a fighting chance rather than no chance, yet a losing battle is being fought; Sunderland need more than draws now.

Hull, meanwhile, celebrated a first win in ten league matches, a 2-0 victory at Nottingham Forest. “I believe, we believe, in the work we’re doing behind the scenes,” said manager Nigel Adkins, after a first win since winning his first match in charge when beating Brentford 3-2 on December 9.

These were results away from home that likely only temporarily lift the gloom enveloping two clubs on the North Sea coastline. A visit to either the Stadium of Light or the KCOM Stadium finds moods of simmering discontent that frequently break into open insurrection against the clubs’ owners. Sunderland are 23rd in the Championship table, three points behind Hull, a single point and place above the relegation zone.

Sunderland owner Ellis Short has been publicly willing to sell the club since November 2016 but was a reluctant proprietor long before that. Relegation last May saw him halve his asking price to the same £57m value he wants to sell a luxury West London residence for.

Should both clubs suffer the drop to League One, they will achieve a statistical anomaly of being surely the first teams to play each other in descending divisions over three consecutive seasons. Should that happen, they will enter the third tier with £35 million each in parachute payments, having been in the Premier League a little more than 12 months before.

The loss of the Premier League dream is at the heart of the matter. Sunderland owner Ellis Short has been publicly willing to sell the club since November 2016 but was a reluctant proprietor long before that. Relegation last May saw him halve his asking price to the same £57m value he wants to sell a luxury West London residence for.

Short slashed budgets last season, something David Moyes, the manager who presided over the 2016-17 demotion, did little to hide his dissatisfaction at. If the Premier League is a division where trying to maintain the status quo is dangerous, then cutting to the bone is likely to be fatal.

There have been no takers for Short’s unwanted item, since to buy the Sunderland Association Football Club Limited will mean the assumption of £110m in debts, a distressed asset in one of the poorest areas of the United Kingdom.

Much the same goes for Hull City. In August 2016, a £130m deal with a Chinese consortium that had made its money converting nuclear bunkers into shopping malls fell through. Such a price would now be embracing fantasy.

Owners the Allam family were owed around £77m in February 2017 and pulled up the drawbridge, banking £35m of profit from the Premier League. That might have almost halved debt, but made relegation almost inevitable from the day Steve Bruce walked out on the eve of the 2016-17 season after a disagreement over his budgets.

Aside from a brief flurry of excitement under Marco Silva, brought in to replace a hapless Mike Phelan last January, Hull’s trajectory has clattered downwards, including the brief reign of Leonid Slutsky, a wildcard choice doomed by the loss of Andy Robertson and Sam Clucas for almost £25m as ten lesser players were brought in for half that.

Sunderland attempted the same with Simon Grayson, an adept lower league manager who had kept Preston North End in the Championship on one of its lowest budgets, but he could not turn matters around.

The club’s problems ran too deep, damage done by corrosive decision-making that included bringing avowed fascist Paolo di Canio into a club whose bedrock fans come from shipbuilding and mining communities, not suspending Adam Johnson when facing a charge of serious sexual assault and myriad misfit signings; Jack Rodwell and his £70,000 weekly wages have become an avatar for wastage.

Similarly, the Allam family, for whom son Ehab is frontman with father Assem retreated to the background, made enemies of fans when trying to change the club’s name to Hull Tigers in 2014. Previously lauded as local entrepreneurs who had rescued the club from a dangerously debt-ridden state, relations have never recovered as further decisions served to enrage. “I think it’s fairly common knowledge that the fans aren’t happy with the ownership,” Ehab said last week with no little understatement.

The Allams and Short are learning the harsh lesson that what money is made in football must be reinvested, and never wastefully. Being in the Premier League is no guarantee of anything since after relegation from the cartel, the descent can be treacherous and yet more costly.

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