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In his somewhat defiant post-Chelsea interview, Steve Bruce raged about Asamoah Gyan's shock departure for Al Ain. After painting a picture of a money-grabbing mercenary that the whole club is better off without, the manager implored us all to 'draw our own conclusions'. Challenge accepted.
There seems to be a popular myth in football that you can not keep an unhappy player and should an individual of this sort darken your door then the only real option open the a club is to secure the best possible price in return for letting the player leave. Personally, I don't agree with that notion. It is simply one option, not the only one. It can't have escaped many people's notice that Luka Modric is still a Tottenham player despite being so intent on leaving that he openly requested to be left out of the team. Spurs instead chose to put their foot down, hold the player to his contract, and look to settle the player back down again. They chose to put their foot down and back themselves to manage the individual. It doesn't prove possible to refocus a player every time, but it is a display of strength and at the very least provides some breathing room to prepare alternative plans and sell on the club's terms.
Clearly, there can be little doubting that the club believe the myth to be true and the club policy on such matters is that little resolve to keep unhappy players at the club will be shown. Like players before him, Gyan was bounced out the door with the club playing the injured party card. Some may suggest that a refusal to be held to ransom by the player is a display of strength in itself, although that claim is tough to justify given that ultimately the player ends up getting exactly what he wants whilst the club bemoan their lot. It must be said, however, that after the making the decision to sell the player, the club have secured for themselves a very good deal. A hefty loan fee has been agreed with Niall Quinn promising money to strengthen the squad in January. I have no complaints about that aspect of this situation at all.
But whether we believe the Gyan situation this week has been handled well or not isn't the real issue here. The salient point is this – during the last year or so, a third Sunderland player has been so disillusioned with life at the club that they have engineered their own departure and put the club in a position where by an unwelcome decision must be made. Many people at this point will be saying that losing top players is not a Sunderland-specific problem, and they would be right. But whilst the likes of Arsenal, Everton, and Aston Villa have experienced difficulties in keeping their players in recent seasons, the vultures circling in those cases were very prestigious clubs enticing the players with a combination of progressive career moves and greater monetary rewards. By comparison, we are losing players to weaker leagues such as Turkey and the UAE and, in Darren Bent's case, a club who at the time were struggling in the Premier League. That is very much a Sunderland-specific issue. No other Premier League clubs seem to be hemorrhaging big players in this manner with such regularity.
Just like Darren Bent and Lorik Cana before him, the temptation will be to blame the departing player branding him a greedy parasites. I was happy to do that myself after the first time it happened. No one wants to think ill of the club they love. Even when it happened a second time just 7 months later, I was happy to once again afford the club the benefit of the doubt and lay the blame at the feet of the player. Gyan's departure has made it a recurring theme, and that means that it can no longer reasonably be dismissed as the random greed of individuals. There simply must be a common-denominator within the club itself because greedy footballers are not something unique to this club.
The most obvious answer to that is that our wage structure is too low and restrictive. According to The Guardian Sunderland's wage bill of £54m last season was highly competitive compared to mid-table rivals. Clearly there has been efforts made to reduce that figure rather dramatically over the last year, but there is little reason to believe the club's resources are not able to sustain one or two top earners. During the talk-ins earlier this year, Niall Quinn cited fears over the snowball effect of granting Darren Bent the pay-rise he asked for, claiming that it could provoke more players to follow suit. Perfectly reasonable and not without foundation. In 2009, as Phil Bardsley's contract was running down, his agent was quoted in The Daily Star claiming the player was demanding 'parity with his colleagues'. A year later, and before the resurgence in form that won him the Player of the Year awards, he was granted a new contract. So while I commend the club on their intentions, the practicality of a policy that sees the happiness of players like Bardsley protected whilst the motivations of match-winners such as Asamoah Gyan and Darren Bent are not must be seriously questioned. With the greatest respect to Phil Bardsley, players of his ilk are considerably easier to replace than quality forwards are.
But I think we would perhaps be a little naive to put this all down to money. It is a contributory factor, obviously, but there remains plenty evidence to suggest there are other issues at work too, and very worrying ones. Gyan has been known to have harboured concerns over what he believed to be declining ambitions within the club and the spirit within the camp, and harboured them long before any middle-eastern money was waved under his nose. And he is not the only player to hint at displeasure with the way Steve Bruce manages the club. Marcos Angeleri's public criticism of Bruce was largely derided at the time, but with the collaborative evidence beginning to stack, it is gaining in credibility.
"Steve Bruce is not a nice person – he's a little unpleasant. […] The boss doesn’t talk to me, he doesn’t even say hello to me when he sees me. That’s why I’m not happy in Sunderland – I don’t understand why I’m not playing. The boss is too defensive." - Marcos Angeleri.
Obviously, with Angeleri something of a figure of fun at the club, and with the press focusing mostly on the silly so-called racism aspect of the quotes, few were willing to take what he said seriously. But when the immensely popular Steed Malbranque left the club this summer, he too cited Steve Bruce as being the reason behind he had 'lost the fun'. With Asamoah Gyan now adding further weight to the suggestion that the camp is not a happy one, Angeleri's comments are becoming harder to brush under the carpet.
I have been a strong advocate of Steve Bruce and despite the disgraceful run of form I have urged that he given the benefit of the doubt and afforded the opportunity to build on the exclusively progressive league finishes he has delivered so far. Last week, I urged Gyan be given the benefit of the doubt, and I still believe that was the fair and decent thing to do. But just like with Gyan, there now seems insufficient doubt to give Bruce the benefit of. Whilst a lot of this has been speculative and everyone will make up their own minds, results, 'baffling' (Quinn's own word) player departures, and the general demeanour of players on the pitch presents us with an unavoidable truth that something is rotten at the core under his stewardship.
Obviously, an upturn in results would have us all feeling a lot more positive but it has now reached the stage where you wonder just how much that would actually solve. One way or another the club are not providing high calibre players the kind of environment in which they can be happy and produce and, as is standard within any football club, all roads must ultimately lead to the manager. With so many legitimate questions hanging over Bruce's head, covering just about every facet of his management of the club, you have to wonder whether Sunderland AFC can ever hope to be a united club with him at the helm or whether division and distrust will forever blight his reign. My own conclusion, sadly, is the latter.