On April 27, an already relegated Sunderland lost 2-1 to Fulham, after a second half winner from on-loan Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, to deliver the final blow to a miserable campaign. On April 29, Sunderland released a statement informing supporters of Ellis Short’s decision to sell the club to an international consortium of investors. This announcement was preceded, earlier in the day, by a statement confirming the sacking of manager Chris Coleman. Within a few hours, Sunderland’s future looked at least clearer even if it’s going to get a whole lot bleaker first. Though Newcastle and Middlesbrough have had unsuccessful months, their scenarios pale in comparison to the alarming plight of Sunderland.
Sunderland’s failure to win a game in April has consigned them to their second successive relegation. Defeat at home to Sheffield Wednesday, three successive draws and a home defeat to Burton Albion were far from good enough in their ailing efforts to avoid the drop. Previous laughter on Wearside at Newcastle fans’ expense, who were told to ‘enjoy Burton away’, has come back to haunt Sunderland fans who now face the prospect of midweek trips to Accrington Stanley and Fleetwood. Declining attendances and an American owner slowly ripping the heart out of the club has resulted in an increasingly disheartened fanbase. However, no one can blame a set of fans who only saw their side win once at home in 2017, from staying away.
In many ways, their 2016 relegation from the Premier League had become an inevitability by the time Sunderland finally failed to stave off relegation for the eighth successive season. No one could have quite predicted the subsequent drop to English football’s third tier that followed this season. The Championship’s gruelling Tuesday-Saturday schedule took its toll on a squad which was unable to ever arrest the seemingly endless run of disappointing results. An often-baffling recruitment strategy, which saw the likes of Didier N’Dong arriving for a club record fee and Jack Rodwell being paid upwards of 70k a week, proved to be one of many poor boardroom decisions. Thankfully, Sunderland have taken a few steps in their daunting process of rebuilding. New owner Stewart Donald may have a ‘spectacular deal’ to takeover in place, but it will take more than just money to solve Sunderland’s deep-rooted problems.
Middlesbrough secured their place in the playoffs ahead of the final game of the season with a comfortable win over Millwall. Tony Pulis will view it as a job well done after his mid-season appointment and will now turn his attentions to the play-offs. Strong home form and just one defeat, away at Sheffield United, secured Boro’s position in the top six and now gives them an outside shot at an immediate return to the Premier League. The goal scoring contribution of Britt Assombalonga has been integral to Boro’s recent form. Whether Pulis’ side will be able to get a result against a strong Aston Villa over the course of two legs is questionable, but they will nevertheless relish the opportunity to get to a play-off final at Wembley.
The four successive victories achieved by Benitez’s side at just the right time, has ensured that Newcastle will remain in the top flight next season. Whether Mike Ashley will match Rafa Benitez’s ambitions and provide him with the transfer kitty he needs, for this side to be able to challenge for the top 8, remains to be seen. But what’s been clear in recent months, is Benitez’s ability to get his side performing beyond expectations. A fine away win at Leicester, which included Ayoze Perez’s goal of the month contender, saw Newcastle go to within touching distance of the magic 40-point mark. They were able to surpass it the following weekend thanks to a 2-1 win over Arsenal. Perez was again at the heart of Newcastle’s best moments and it was the Spaniard who drew Newcastle level after falling behind. The Spaniard also linked up with Matt Ritchie for Newcastle’s winning goal. Despite successive defeats by a single goal, first away at Everton and then at home to West Brom, fans and players alike will still hope that Newcastle can secure a top 10 finish in the remaining three games.
More importantly though is the summer that lies ahead, with issues of recruitment, Benitez’s future and the club’s long-term direction being at the forefront of conversation on Tyneside. Another largely stale Fans Forum meeting has done little to instil any confidence in the prospect of Mike Ashley being able to match Benitez’s long-term vision for the club. Fans will now wait anxiously to see what the summer holds in store.
Words: Caspar de Wesselow