There's something deeply wrong at Sunderland. For the fourth season running, the Black Cats are heading for a bitter relegation battle, with seemingly not even the experience of manager Dick Advocaat helping to turn things around. He broke into tears when he led the club to dramatic relegation survival last season; now he's probably crying at having not called it quits in the summer. They've picked up just two points from their opening six games, with a 2-0 defeat away at newly promoted Bournemouth on the weekend being the latest kick in the teeth.
Some have already called for Advocaat's head, though he batted away speculation of an imminent resignation on Monday, saying: "If I feel it is better for somebody else to take over then I will go. Believe me." He's probably right: it's hard to imagine any suitably talented coach wanting to take on such a mammoth task as keeping Sunderland in the Premier League. But if the structure of Sunderland's recent seasons are anything to go by, he won't be given any choice in the matter.
In 2011-12, Steve Bruce was sacked in December and Martin O'Neill guided them to survival. In 2012-13, Martin O'Neill was sacked in March, and Paolo Di Canio kept them alive by the skin of their teeth. In 2013-14, Di Canio went as early as September, though Gus Poyet pulled off the most remarkable escape job of them all, before being himself replaced by Advocaat the following March. It's an incredible managerial roller coaster that has bizarrely worked in their favor: each time performances have improved after a manager was replaced.
But this itself speaks of the problems ingrained at Sunderland. When they're firing on all cylinders, the Black Cats have proven they're good enough to at least compete in the top flight. It is not necessarily a dearth of talent -- though certainly they've brought in plenty of sub-par players on over-par wages through the years -- that is the issue at the Stadium of Light, but something harder to pinpoint, something embedded in the culture of the club itself. Introducing a new manager has seemed to change things, but only temporarily.
Football teams are fascinating things, and the best ones function on several different levels. But in a most simplistic of models, there's the technical and tactical aspect, and a collective mental one, a "team spirit." Sunderland seem to be great case study into how badly teams can underperform when lacking in the latter. No doubt it's partly up to the manager to construct a team ethic, but if the players aren't willing to hold up their end of the bargain, it's an impossible task. The sheer number of coaches Sunderland have been through since their last comfortable mid-table finish under Bruce suggests it's not the the man on the bench that's the problem.
The question is why aren't the players willing to buy into the message? That is much harder for an outsider to answer, though one obvious possibility is the lack of dressing room leaders. Great teams have "great men" to drag them kicking and screaming over the line. Roy Keane and John Terry are obvious examples: players whose technical skill was never quite world class, but whose total and utter commitment served as examples for the rest of the squad. The Black Cats' rather apathetic performances suggest they're rather lacking in this regard, and captain John O'Shea was tellingly dropped to make way for Younès Kaboul after his arrival in the summer.
Even more worrying is an article by The Secret Footballer from a couple of years ago, telling stories of a drinking problem in Sunderland's dressing room:
"I can vividly remember being in Marbella when one Sunderland player ordered a Nebuchadnezzar of champagne for £75,000. Seriously. A waiter bought it out on a trolley and it took three of them to pour it every time he wanted to top up his glass.
"And last season, after the team had been hammered on the Saturday, a friend sent me a picture of half a dozen Sunderland first team players all holding up cigarettes and pints of beer in a pub during an all-day session on the Sunday."
Of course, it's impossible to verify these tales, but that they're plausible in the first instance says it all. It's clear something needs to change beyond the manager -- a full reconstruction of the team and its identity seems necessary -- and it's a job that's easier said than done if the reports of their astronomical wage bill are anything to go by. Firing Advocaat would merely be putting another sticking plaster on a broken leg and pretending everything's going to be alright.
Sunderland have been playing with fire for so long, that they shouldn't be surprised when they finally get burned.