Dick Advocaat’s mission is to keep Sunderland up, but beyond that he may not have a job come the summer
By the end, Gus Poyet’s position had become untenable.
There was a sense of inevitable drift about Sunderland, and when half of a 46,000 crowd have left by half time and a significant number of those who remain are trying to throw their season-tickets at the manager, dismissal probably is the only solution.
But that does not mean Poyet, who was fired on Monday, was the only problem, or even the biggest problem at the club.
The task for Dick Advocaat, his replacement, is simple. Keep Sunderland in the Premier League. He has nine games in which to maintain a one-point lead over Burnley, beginning against West Ham United on Saturday.
Realistically, 10 points would almost certainly be enough.
Even if Burnley do better, that would probably be enough to overhaul at least one of Hull City or Aston Villa, the latter resurgent as they have been under Tim Sherwood.
The good news for Sunderland is that a March change of leadership worked for them two years ago, when Martin O’Neill was dismissed with seven games remaining and Paolo Di Canio, with victories over Newcastle United and Everton, kept the club up.
The bad news is that the situation Advocaat inherits is probably worse than the one then.
Whatever Poyet’s failings – the most misguided perhaps being to attack Sunderland fans when his cautious, possession-based approach was questioned – this is a poor squad, a weaker one than the one that escaped relegation with an improbable late surge last season.
Four of the heroes of that freakish month in which Sunderland won away at Chelsea and Manchester United – Fabio Borini, Ki Sung-yueng, Marcos Alonso and Jack Colback – left the club in the summer, and none have been adequately replaced.
Who bears responsibility for that is open to debate. Poyet was unhappy for much of his tenure at the lack of control he had over signings, something that led to the departure of Roberto Di Fanti as director of football in January last year.
Relations with his replacement, Lee Congerton, are understood to have been strained.
It is true that the club has undergone a process of cost-cutting as Ellis Short, the Texas-based owner, looks to try to bring the club’s losses under control.
But it is also true that none of the signings Poyet is known to have pushed for – Ignacio Scocco, Will Buckley, Liam Bridcutt and Jermain Defoe – have been great successes.
The £14 million (Dh76.4m) capture of Defoe, in particular, will look like a panicky mistake should Sunderland go down, the promise suggested by goals in two of his first three league games soon fizzling out.
Goals and creativity have been an issue all season. Steven Fletcher has not been at his best, Connor Wickham’s purple patch towards the end of last season looks increasingly inexplicable, Emanuele Giaccherini has been injured – not that he has looked happy when he has been fit – Ricky Alvarez has been as frustrating as he was always likely to be, and Adam Johnson was out of sorts even before his arrest on suspicion of sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl.
The club initially suspended him, but after bail was extended he is back in the squad for the trip to West Ham.
There is a wider game being played as well. Sunderland soon came to regret having kept Di Canio on after the short-term goal of survival had been achieved and dismissed him a month into the following season.
Advocaat was recommended by Congerton’s confidante Frank Arnesen, but the sense is that he would have to achieve something remarkable in these nine games to be kept on, with the former England manager Steve McClaren the preferred option to take charge in the summer.
(When he was Middlesbrough manager between 2001 and 2006, he, too, was pelted with season tickets by angry home fans, coincidentally also during a 4-0 defeat to Aston Villa in February 2006, which at least suggests there is a precedent for such protests.)
How interested McClaren is will be largely dependent on whether Derby County, currently fifth in the Championship, are promoted, and, of course, on whether Sunderland survive.
Advocaat’s record as a coach is very good, with league titles in three countries and a Uefa Cup to his name, but his achievements since 2008 are thin. He has never worked in the Premier League, and he has never really been involved in a relegation battle.
He is a relatively big name and that may lift spirits, but his chief qualification, perhaps, is the fact that he is not Poyet.
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Published: March 20, 2015 04:00 AM