Gus Poyet now believes in miracles. And after he led his Sunderland side to mathematical Premier League safety, with one game remaining, they have become just the second side in the history of the league to survive relegation after being rock bottom on Christmas.
Seeing the jubilant celebrations of the Sunderland fans – starkly contrasted to the disconsolate fans of Cardiff City, Fulham, and Norwich City – leaves behind a genuine sense of justice. The football gods have acted, and they are shining favourably on those clubs who made the right decisions, at the right times.
The fortunes of a club like Sunderland – West Ham and Crystal Palace too – demonstrate that when big decisions are made correctly by the men at the top of the tree, it can have huge ramifications for the clubs at the bottom.
Everybody is a genius with hindsight. And it’s easy for me to sit here and say that certain clubs got it wrong and others got it right when the table is staring me in the face. But few would have argued at the time against Sunderland’s removal of Paolo Di Canio, Crystal Palace’s recruitment of Tony Pulis, or West Ham sticking by Sam Allardyce. Homogeneously, Cardiff City’s treatment of Malky Mackay, and Norwich’s panic sacking of Chris Hughton could probably have been filed under the ‘bad decisions’ category, prior to their subsequent relegations.
There was a general consensus that, despite gaining promotion for Palace, that Ian Holloway was out of his depth. Three points from just eight games left Palace rooted firmly to the foot of the table, with few giving them any hope of survival. Holloway had done what he could, but he tried too hard to change a winning formula in order to adapt to the rigours of Premier League life. Six months later and, with Tony Pulis in charge, the Eagles are comfortably placed as a mid-table side. Even in the most optimistic Palace fan’s wildest dreams, they could not have predicted that.
Similarly, few would have argued when Di Canio was shown the exit by Sunderland. Having picked up just one point from five games by late September, the Italian had won few fans during his short spell in the north-east. His ‘management by hand grenade’ approach wasn’t liked by a number of the Sunderland players – many of whom found themselves marginalised by Di Canio – whilst his self-proclaimed fascist ideals isolated him from many supporters offended by his political leanings.
West Ham, despite finding themselves in 19th position at the turn of the year, recognised the quality they possessed in-house. Who would most teams struggling at the foot of the table wish to have to turn their fortunes around? Big Sam would be right near the top of that list. He may not be the most popular man in East London right now – with his style of football proving divisive amongst West Ham fans – but when avoiding relegation is the game, Sam Allardyce is the name.
Contrast these decisions – and subsequent fortunes – to those of Cardiff, Fulham, and Norwich exhibits the necessities of a level-headed and rational owner. Each of these three clubs fell victim to the ‘hire and fire’ culture in football management – with ill-thought out, rash decision-making – and are now paying the penalty.
When Cardiff sacked Malky Mackay, they were in 16th place, having accrued 18 points from 19 games. Now, sitting afoot the table, they have accumulated just 12 more points from the last 18 games. In ridding themselves of the extremely popular Mackay, Cardiff instated a man with zero English football management experience in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Fulham’s new owner, Shahid Khan, claimed Martin Jol would be given the time to overcome their poor form, only to dismiss him after a 3-0 defeat to West Ham in December. Ex-Manchester United coach Rene Meulensteen was elected to solve their problems, only to fire him after two months of work.
Chris Hughton was given the boot with just five games of the season remaining. Sitting five points above the relegation zone, and heading into a crucial run of fixtures, Norwich destabilised the situation by intervening during a vital period. The board bent to the fans’ calls for Hughton to be axed, and they’ve collected just one point since.
The firing of managers in the Premier League this season has reached new levels. Since the first match of the season, 10 managers have been fired. If Alan Pardew and Big Sam are to face the same fate come the summer, then Brendan Rodgers would be the second-longest serving manager in the league behind Arsene Wenger.
Obviously, this is all with a measure of hindsight. From a very peripheral position – from the outside, looking in – it feels as though justice has been served. The cream always rises to the top. And the same applies to football club owners. The bad have been punished, whilst the good have been rewarded.