Relegation for Sunderland has been a game they have narrowly defeated with a fourth quarter run sometimes topped by a buzzer-beating winner.
This year, however, the deficit was too great, the changes non-existent and they were sent into the Championship way before a buzzer-beater could drift into their consciousness.
The Black Cats have cobbled together squad after squad lacking in Premier League quality. Jermain Defoe saved them last season along with the typical Sam Allardyce booster, but this season they fell early and they fell without a spluttering of a fight. The club symbolic of relegation avoidance has succumbed to life in the Championship.
David Moyes has taken a barrage of flak. Understandable given his very public pessimism, but Moyes is – as he was at Manchester United – little more than a scapegoat for a club in dire need of a substantial rebuild. Fingernails have been decimated by Sunderland fans year upon year and that is no coincidence. They are a club with an immense fan base, yet they have accepted for nip-and-tuck relegation dodging for year upon year.
Ambition has been lacking for many years and the team has been not only inefficient in the market, but accepted players who struggle to make the Premier League par. Whether through acts of cost-cutting or poor judgement of player standard, Sunderland have been a club lurching from turmoil to turmoil. Manager changes have prolonged the inevitable relegation for long enough, now the club must re-evaluate their standing in the English game and be open-minded as an overhaul becomes necessity.
The Championship is no cake walk. It may be an exhausted cliché, but teams that fall out of the Premier League as emphatically as Sunderland infrequently return immediately. Rivals Newcastle were in a far stronger position 12 months ago and spent more than anyone would expect (due to the sales of Moussa Sissoko and Georginio Wijnaldum) from Sunderland this summer, but the Magpies were not the runaway dominant force everyone expected. Aston Villa, Norwich, Blackburn and several others have been relegated in recent years without as much as a sniff of returning.
With a squad needing renovation and managerial uncertainty, the Black Cats are in desperate need of redirection. From the very top the club needs to adapt or they face a real risk of the dreaded double-drop. Jermain Defoe, Didier N’dong, Lamine Kone and Jordan Pickford will likely be nabbed from their clutches early this summer and – one can only hope – that the scouting team has not only identified replacements, but has an extensive list of other additions.
Having been engaged in a relegation battle every season since 2011/12, to expect a contingency for such an eventuality is barely unreasonable. Sunderland have a pivotal summer approaching and early noises about the position of David Moyes suggest hesitancy that they cannot afford. Moyes’ demeanour this season was far from a positive influence and, while it would be foolish to place all the blame on him, going into another season with his dour presence on the touchline would be a mistake.
Options to take his dugout space are vast given Sunderland’s reputation. One manager will not fix-all in a club that has fallen to the least dramatic of relegation after years of teetering on the brink. It might take years to get the club back in Premier League-ready shape, but they will be all the better for it.
The fans can enjoy victories on a more frequent basis and, with hindsight, there may be a realisation that this relegation came at the right time for the club. An immediate return to the top flight could ignite another period of papering over cracks for the Black Cats. They must embrace relegation with realism and broadmindedness to come back as a stronger club from top to bottom.