We Sunderland fans are more than used to mediocrity, misery and dashed hopes – it’s pretty much all we’ve known for decades now. Oh, apart from a brief period at the turn of the century when Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips combined to produce some football that was almost sexual to watch.
It’s been almost a year since genial Ulsterman Martin O’Neill swooshed into the Stadium Of Light, giving us renewed hope that finally, THIS was the man who could lead us to the promised land. That promised land being nothing more than a few top half finishes and maybe a cup final somewhere along the line.
Fast forward eleven and a bit months and O’Neill’s tenure is at that crucial crossroads point. The club got an immediate adrenaline boost when he arrived, as he organised the players, instilled some much-needed belief and racked up a sackful of points by deploying a canny counter-attacking style.
But once Premier League safety had been assured with a couple of months of last season remaining, the wins dried up. And they still haven’t returned. And we’re almost a third of the way into the season. And we’re all getting a bit jittery.
We haven’t had a bad season per se – we just haven’t got out of first gear. This time last month we’d still only lost once, and defeat came at the home of the champions. But we’ve just lost three on the spin, including a turgid home loss against lower league rivals Middlesbrough in the Capital One Cup.
It already looks like the kind of run that drains teams of confidence and sends them into a tailspin. At the start of the season, we could have been forgiven for thinking we were too good for a relegation battle but that now looks like folly.
The illness isn’t hard to diagnose. Essentially, we’re bereft of creativity, with our wide men suffering from chronically poor form. New signing Adam Johnson is taking his time settling in, which is no surprise given how little football he got to play at Manchester City.
Over on the other flank, James McClean has struggled to find the performances he put in when he burst into the Sunderland side a year ago. Maybe it’s harder for him because opposing defenders are more aware of his game; maybe his head’s been turned by being fast-tracked into the big time. Time will tell.
Then there’s Stephane Sessegnon, who has played the role of bewildering enigma over the past few months. Capable of game-changing brilliance and previously able to chip in with his share of goals, he’s playing like someone who isn’t sure he wants to be where he is any more. Maybe he shouldn’t be.
All of that absence of creative endeavour is leaving new signing Steven Fletcher looking more than a bit lost up front. The Scot started the season with a great run of goals but these have dried up as the team’s results have dipped.
The fact that Newcastle’s Demba Ba was our top scorer for October (with one own goal) has not helped to appease the fans, who are rapidly becoming uncomfortable with how the season is shaping up.
It’s all salvageable but O’Neill needs to make the right decisions during the January transfer window and be backed by the club’s owner Ellis Short. Seeing as the manager seems to see Louis Saha only as an impact player from the bench, a new, proven forward is required to cause some trouble in and around the penalty area and help lighten Fletcher’s load.
If it was up to me, I’d let Johnson play his way through his form loss and leave McClean on the bench, where he can watch and learn. I’d play Sessegnon in a free-ish role starting on the opposing flank to Johnson and see if he can cause more havoc in a less central role than the one he’s occupying now.
But there’s no doubt that something has to change – it’s going to be a long, tough winter for Sunderland and loitering just above the bottom three is not the place that a team that can’t score goals needs to be at the beginning of it.