Annual Premier League Survival Battle Has Taken Its Toll On Sunderland

“Rotherham v Sunderland” (CC BY 2.0) by Chris

Just a few months after being relegated from the Premier League, Sunderland find themselves faced with the realistic prospect of dropping divisions for a second consecutive season. The clubs are currently sat second-bottom of the Championship table, having won just one of their 11 games.

During their time in the top flight, the Black Cats were regular candidates for relegation from the top tier and from the outset were just 4/1 to be relegated in last season’s Premier League betting relegation odds. Pressure at the bottom isn’t strange to them, then, but life is looking anything but rosy at current and dropping down another tier could, of course, cause them serious financial harm. Economically, the northeast club were one of the worst performing clubs during their time in the top flight with only two of the league’s richest club’s (Manchester City and Chelsea) making less profit since 2008.

As a result, the club are ill-prepared for the financial commitments required to haul themselves back to the top flight at the first attempt. For fans of the club who were perhaps hoping that relegation would offer a chance to regroup and come back stronger, their illusions have already been shattered. And new boss Simon Grayson has done little so far to suggest that the club can at least consolidate their position in the second tier with any ease.

The club’s epic struggle to survive in the top flight has taken its toll on a club whose owner has seemingly lost interest and whose better players have moved on to pastures new. Last year’s decision to hand responsibility for survival to David Moyes proved to be a misguided one as the club sunk to a new level of despair and negativity.

“Villa Park” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by jwillier2

With no funds to compete with the Championship’s new breed of big spenders, the future does not look good at the Stadium of Light. Even former Premier League regulars Aston Villa could only manage a 13th-place finish in the Championship last term, despite spending £72m during the two transfer windows. This year, the Midland side are improving slowly but they have plenty of experience in their side and a boss who knows what it takes to get out of this league. If teams like Villa have found it tough going, Sunderland may be left wondering just what hope there is left for them.

The recent international break may have come at just the right time for Grayson and his men, who would have been desperate to get back on the training ground after their recent draw against Preston North End. If they are going to break their nine-game winless streak and haul themselves out of the drop zone then they will need to make the most of the talent they have available. With three of their next four matches at home and on-loan striker Lewis Grabban and highly-rated youngster Josh Maja set to return, October could be a crucial month for the Mackems.

If there is no sign of improvement during this period, Grayson’s future will surely be debated. Although it is hard to imagine who else would want to take on what looks increasingly like a thankless task.

GOTW: Preston v Sunderland

Well that was an action packed week – more than the usual amount of video content in this post as there was a lot to cover!

Last week’s game of the week lived up to expectations:

But then Leeds imploded on Tuesday evening – they were 2-0 down at Cardiff City before Liam Cooper was sent off. You’ve got to wonder if that was a game too far for the Yorkshire club.

Cardiff’s victory means that they’re two points clear of Sheffield United going into this weekend’s games, although both Leeds and Wolves could overtake the Bluebirds if Cardiff lose at home to Derby.

At the wrong end of the table, Bolton are now four points adrift of Sunderland, who are two points behind three clubs on eight points. As I mentioned last week, Bolton are currently worse than Rotherham were last season and are now as short as 1/4 for relegation.

Preston v Sunderland

Just over 80 years ago, the clubs met in the FA Cup Final:

Tomorrow’s game is under slightly different circumstances: Preston are currently fifth in the table and their transformation under former Norwich City boss Alex Neil is one of the stories that hasn’t been given credit so far. The Lillywhites have lost once this season and have only lost once at Deepdale since Boxing Day 2016. Add four clean sheets in five home games this season into the mix and it’s clear that Preston are currently in the top six on merit.

Sunderland – with former Preston boss Simon Grayson at the helm – have been awful so far. They’ve not won since the middle of last month and haven’t managed a victory in a league game at the Stadium of Light since beating Watford in the Premier League just before last Christmas. The main problem is defence: almost half of the 19 goals they’ve conceded so far this season have been scored in either the first or the last fifteen minutes of the game and they’ve already blown leads at Hull City and Sheffield Wednesday. Grayson’s already used 23 different players in league games with George Honeyman and James Vaughan as the only ever presents, which highlights another issue: Honeyman was promoted from the under 23 side and last season Vaughan was playing in League One for Bury. If the Black Cats continue their poor run, it’s not exactly difficult to see what the problem is.

Head to head: first meeting at Deepdale in a league game since October 2006, which Preston won 4-1. The Lillywhites have won half of the last ten league games between the clubs in Lancashire, Sunderland’s last win at Preston came in August 2003. Both teams have scored in eight of the last ten meetings with an average of 3.4 goals per game: considering how bad Sunderland’s defence is at the moment, that might be worth a punt!

The other game to monitor is at the Pirelli Stadium in Burton, where Wolves are the visitors. The 2-0 loss at Sheffield United on Tuesday was Wolves’ first defeat in five games but they’re still only three points behind Cardiff. After a poor start Burton seemed to have turned the corner recently, but a comprehensive 4-0 home defeat by Aston Villa (who finally seem to have got the hang of this) earlier this week underlined The Brewers’ defensive fragility.

Televised games: QPR v Fulham (Friday, Sky Sports Football, 7:45pm kick off) is the usual lazy planning, Reading v Norwich (Saturday, Sky Sports Football 5:30pm kick off) would have looked good on paper before the season started but if Sheffield Wednesday v Leeds (Sunday, Sky Sports Main Event, 12:15pm kick off) is as entertaining as last week’s Steel City Derby was then we’re in for a treat…

No scheduled post next weekend, so all being well I’ll be back in a fortnight with a general look at the first quarter of the season.

GOTW: Leeds v Ipswich

Two big stories last weekend: all teams have now lost at least once and in case you missed it, Harry Redknapp was sacked by Birmingham City.

I’m fairly sure that if the Blues had been relegated at the end of last season he’d have walked away regardless, so to some extent his departure was predictable even without the expensive spending spree that resulted in six consecutive defeats.

Anway, here’s how Leeds United lost their unbeaten record at the New Den:

Earlier this week, five Championship clubs qualified for last sixteen of the League Cup: all were drawn against Premier League opposition, but only Bristol City were drawn at home. The most dramatic game came at Turf Moor, where Leeds drew 2-2 with Burnley and then won a penalty shoot out.

The next round takes place in about a month’s time and I’ll preview the games in the post for Friday 20th October.

This weekend any of the top seven teams could go top and only Bolton Wanderers cannot escape the bottom three.

Leeds United v Ipswich Town

The key question in this game is how Leeds will respond to losing their unbeaten record and having to play to penalties in the League Cup on Tuesday evening. The current leaders have not lost consecutive games since April but managed that particular feat five times last season and so Ipswich might fancy their chances, although they’d be well advised to keep an eye on both Kemar Roofe and Pierre-Michel Lasogga, who between seem to have replaced Chris Wood.

The problem for the Tractor Boys is that they’ve only won three of their last ten road trips and have only won at Elland Road twice in their last ten attempts over the last decade. The recent wins at Barnsley and Millwall were their first consecutive away wins since the end of 2015, which indicates to me that this is an important game for Mick McCarthy’s team: if they can earn at least a point at Leeds, then they should taken seriously as promotion candidates.

Bolton Wanderers v Brentford

I know it’s not even the end of September, but if Bolton don’t start picking up points soon they’re toast. The Trotters are currently performing at a lower level than they were when relegated two seasons ago and at a considerably worse level than Rotherham did last season. Brentford haven’t won an away game in the competition since March: if you’re looking for a reason why they’ve regressed so badly, they’ve only won six aways over the last calendar year.

Sunderland v Cardiff City

Since relegation, The Black Cats have managed one goal from open play – the other was a consolation penalty – and one point at the Stadium Of Light. There are already mutterings from the faithful about Simon Grayson’s ability to ‘do the job’ (whatever that means this season), but I’d say that’s more to do with the mess he’s inherited rather than his ability to manage at this level. Cardiff’s recent mini wobble – two points from the last nine – hints that their fast start may be a thing of the past, but the Bluebirds have only lost three of their last ten aways.

Wolves v Barnsley

I’m still not completely sure what to make of Wolves. They’ve only lost twice since April – but only once this season – but ten of their 17 points so far have been earned against teams that are currently in the bottom half of the table. That’s not good news for Barnsley who are currently only three points outside the relegation zone and have been poor away from Oakwell for some time: four points from their last ten matches.

Televised games: Aston Villa v Nottingham Forest (tomorrow, Sky Sports Main Event 5:30pm) is a bog standard middle of the table clash between two  Midlands clubs that won the European Cup years ago and is yet another chance to watch Villa. However, on Sunday it’s the first Sheffield Derby (Sky Sports Football or Sky Sports Main Event, 1:15pm kick off) at Hillsborough for just over five and a half years and I think that’s required viewing.

I’ll be back next Friday, but there’s a midweek programme next week and Cardiff City v Leeds United is being shown on Sky Sports Football next Tuesday evening (7:45pm kick off). So if you’re not at a game (I will be), then that match should be worth watching.


New Sky Deal: Is It Worth It?

The timing of Tuesday’s announcement of the new EFL TV deal with Sky Sports was interesting: all three EFL divisions had almost full midweek programmes and it was almost exactly three months since the Financial Times published this:

‘Premier League football suffered the biggest drop in viewing on Sky TV for at least seven years, raising questions over the popularity of live sports as well as the sustainability of a lucrative source of funding for English clubs.’

If Premier League coverage has reached saturation point – and it appears it has – it’s now clear why Sky Sports rebranded their sports channels during the summer and are looking for a new revenue stream.

That’s us.

So what are we getting in just under two years then? With one major exception – which I’ll come to in a moment – it’s not much more than you’re currently getting with a Sky Sports subscription. They already broadcast games from the EFL, the League Cup and the EFL Trophy.

The first difference is that Sky Sports will be broadcasting ‘sixteen Championship games on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings’: to put that into context, this season there are five midweek programmes of at least ten games each (it’s not clear yet if Boxing Day will be part of the new deal), in which case the new deal means Sky Sports will be broadcasting just under a quarter of those games.

Clearly that’s more than now, but the issue here is which games on which evenings. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that the ‘juicy’ games will be scheduled for broadcast against the Champions League games on BT Sport, which implies that Sky Sports might -at the very least – try to influence the EFL fixture computer. On the other hand, Sky Sports poor record of selecting live games in the Championship might continue: from tomorrow until the end of the month, five games are being televised: we going to be watching eighteenth placed Aston Villa twice, four clubs that are in currently the bottom half of the division and two derbies, only one of which (The Steel City Derby on 24th September) will feature teams currently in the top ten. And all of those teams have played in the Premier League at some point over the last two decades, which makes the match selection process look even lazier, doesn’t it!

As for the League Cup and the EFL Trophy, Championship sides don’t perform well in the former and aren’t even involved in the latter.

However, the unique selling point of this deal is being able to stream Championship games that aren’t (a) on a Saturday and (b) aren’t being televised by Sky via individual club websites. For my club for the duration of this season, that’s currently £110 a year and £12.50 a month: as there won’t be any league games between the end of May and the beginning of August, ten months at £12.50 will cost £15 more than an annual subscription. It’s important to remember that’s what it costs at the moment: it’ll be different in August 2019 anyway and may cost considerably more by then.

Once again, Sky Sports’ bottom line is profit, not necessarily what’s in the best interest of ordinary fans. This is where we come to another issue.

I’m happy to admit that how I watch – or should I say consume – football is a reflection of my age. I’m a season ticket holder at my local club and on average attend at least one or two away games a season. Having grown up with extremely limited options – BBC Radio, the weekly highlights programme on ITV and BBC, Ceefax – I like the idea I can get goal flashes on my mobile phone, but if I’m not at the game then as long as I know what the score is I don’t particularly care.

I have a Sky Sports subscription but I watch just as much Super League and NFL as I do Premier League: I always try to watch Championship and League One games because that’s why this blog and Buzzin’ League One football exist. If there’s a decent midweek game from the Championship on Sky Sports in a couple of years time, I’ll probably watch it if I can find the time.

But I’m not paying any more for that and I suspect I may not be alone.

A very brief look at this weekend’s action now. If I’d been writing a normal post, the game of the week would have been Cardiff City v Sheffield Wednesday, with Millwall v Leeds United and Birmingham City v Preston not far behind. Cardiff lost their unbeaten record earlier this week when they lost 3-0 at Deepdale, but it’s been over a decade since Wednesday won in the Welsh capital.

Don’t forget that next week there are several games in the League Cup featuring Championship teams: if anything dramatic happens I’ll update this post. Otherwise it’s business as usual next Friday, so enjoy the weekend.