It’s mid-way through the first half at the Stadium of Light. And Sunderland manager Gus Poyet is watching his team crumble without any sort of fight in a big relegation match. Aston Villa are running through Sunderland at will. You would expect him to be raging on the touchline. Demanding a response from his players.
But no. His face is blank. As if he has no idea what is happening in front of him. And no idea of what to do about it. For this is a manager who is no longer in control of his team.
When a team are so abject in a game of importance, questions have to be asked. And the first place to go is right to the heart of the dressing room. For however well a manager thinks he has prepared his team, if influential players are not tuned into the demands of the occasion, his work will be in vain.
Influential players are usually senior ones. They carry authority and influence (positive and negative) on the group as a whole. And generally they know what they can get away with, if they choose to. Their seniority may give them the ear of board members, which can leave them with a sense of immunity from the manager. They often have a cause. Which may not be the cause that serves the best interest of the football club and the community it serves.
Their cause can be one of self-interest. Which means their salary, status and the culture within the culture that gives them their in -house authority and power. If this self-serving culture is not broken early on, then it becomes over-bearing and can ruin the best intentions of any manager. Because the players feel more powerful than the manager. And each manager they see off, increases this sense of self-importance.
Sunderland sent in Paolo Di Canio to try to break exactly this type of culture. But despite his best efforts he couldn’t do it. The Italian tried to confront it head on, but didn’t have enough allies inside the camp. Thus the street-wise senior players knew what they had to do to see him off.
And now they have seen off Poyet. Player power is holding sway at Sunderland. Relying on experienced players is fine if they are totally dedicated to self-improvement. But when they are not, an ugly cynicism holds sway. Thus younger players daren’t show the enthusiasm to better themselves, as it’s not in the way of the dressing-room culture to do so. Thus everyone is held back at the same level of mediocrity. Leading to no improvement in results year on year.
With Poyet sacked, the players will now undoubtedly say the right things and admit that they could have done more. And under a new manager, a short-term change in attitude may show itself.
But for anything to really move forward at Sunderland, a comprehensive clear-out of the dressing room ‘leaders’ is critical. If the next manager fails to act, then he can expect to go the way of Di Canio and Poyet.