Sunderland are in freefall. No one thought it would be easy for the recently relegated club to bouce straight back to the Premier League after a season in the Championship, not with a squad like theirs and the scant resources they appear to have, but their struggles are profound.
Now managerless and in the relegation zone, the Black Cats are apparently in dire straits. Billy McKinlay – who was only promoted to first-team coach because of an illness to Simon Grayson’s assistant Glynn Snodin – and Robbie Stockdale – who started his career at Middlesbrough – will take the reins jointly this weekend, but it doesn’t look good for the club who seemed to make an art of Premier League survival thanks to sacking managers at the right time.
You get the feeling that the dead Black Cat bounce will need to work in the Championship this time around, too. Already in the bottom three, Birmingham up ahead are only two points ahead. But above that, there’s a five point gap back to Sunderland. Put another way, it’s still early days, and while there’s no such thing as a relegation battle just yet – given there are so many games to go – they need to pick up wins quickly.
The fact that there seems to be no ‘real’ danger is also one of the reasons that Sunderland should be very worried indeed: it’s a false sense of security if you don’t actually pick up points in the near future. You only have to look at clubs like Blackburn currently, or indeed the Sheffield clubs, Norwich City or even Manchester City in the late 90s to see just how easy it is for traditionally big clubs to drop into the third tier.
The problem now is who the new manager might be.
That’s the difference between this weekend’s opponents, Middlesbrough, and Sunderland. When the Black Cats were relegated, there was still talk of David Moyes staying on in the dugout. When he was sacked, the appointment of Grayson was only completed after the current owners were unable to sell the club. Such indecisiveness seems to have cost the club. Boro, on the other hand, made a very quick decision to appoint Garry Monk, a man who took Leeds within a game of the play-offs last season, despite their own previous chairman’s peccadilloes.
His start at the North Yorkshire side wasn’t the best, but after getting to know the club and the players, it seems as though Middlesbrough are starting to motor. Bringing in Monk meant a new manager with new ideas coming into a club which was low after relegation. By now, a few months later, Boro are only nine points off top spot, and things change quickly in the Championship.
Indeed, from ninth place to fifth place, the table is starting to look fairly ominous. Clubs like Middlesbrough, Norwich City, Aston Villa and Leeds United – grand old English clubs with Premier League pedigree – are sitting menacingly just behind the likes of Cardiff City and Sheffield United, the early pace-setters.
It shows the benefit of decisiveness and spending money in the summer. But perhaps mostly the money part.
We’ve been warned quite a bit recently that the Premier League’s TV rights deal, which has seen £8bn flood into the league, would have an effect on the Championship. Parachute payments from a league that is pulling even further away from the one below will only populate the top of the second tier with the same clubs year in and year out, with the only difference being the teams that come down replace the three who go up.
Sunderland are showing that isn’t the case, but as Middlesbrough and the other around them start to gain results, it shows that size matters in the Championship. And despite the fact that this is still a league where ‘anyone can beat anyone’ the bigger clubs will rise to the top in the end.
This weekend is the sort of game that Sunderland will need to start winning relatively soon, then, if they’re to stick with the pace of the biggest clubs in the division and not sink towards the bottom, where the smaller clubs congregate these days. Things will only get more pronounced on that front.