Three years after one relegation, Sunderland are bidding for another record low points total. Andy Dawson analyses Mick McCarthy’s recipe for success

In 2003 Sunderland set an unwanted record when they were relegated from the Premiership with a staggeringly vile total of 19 points. The Black Cats’ current squad make the hapless mob from three seasons ago look like José Mourinho’s Chelsea.

Following his team’s recent defeat at Fulham, Mick McCarthy had garnered a paltry six from a possible 87 Premiership points since taking over in early 2003, all six coming this season. While continually attracting crowds in excess of 30,000, the side have failed to win a single home match in the top flight in that time. The Fulham defeat left us requiring another 14 points to stay up, and that’s assuming West Brom go on to lose every single one of their remaining matches and Portsmouth and Birmingham don’t overhaul them. While it’s not mathematically certain, we’re already down. At the turn of the year. Quite a feat.

Despite last season’s Championship win and an FA Cup semi-final appearance in 2004, a certain section of the team’s support have been suspicious of McCarthy since day one, partly due to the Roy Keane-flavoured baggage that came with him. Seeing him admit that he hadn’t realised that Spain had been playing with ten men during that 2002 World Cup match didn’t do him any favours, either. Mix in an annoying penchant for unusual team selections and stupefying substitutions, and you have another version of Peter Reid, but without the charisma.

Fans expected a tough battle following promotion, with a limited budget available to the manager, but McCarthy’s recruitment policy resembled that of someone in possession of a state-of-the-art home cinema system buying pirate DVDs from a stranger in a pub. He targeted lower-league players who were out of contract, such as Tommy Miller and the uniquely gifted Nyron Nosworthy, a player who somehow managed to concede a corner from the halfway line against Middlesbrough with no opposing player within ten yards of him. Go on, try to imagine it.

Rumours that the club were only prepared to offer contracts containing a relegation-triggered wage reduction meant that we were hamstrung when it came to competing against our nearest rivals in the transfer market. Not to mention the defeatist attitude it engendered throughout the club.

The contract policy was born of necessity given the club’s debts, which currently stand at an almost Leeds-shaming £40 million. But the way McCarthy spent his £4m transfer budget was at best alarming. Almost half was blown on Blackburn striker Jon Stead, a Netto Peter Crouch, who scored just twice in 29 games last season and was still waiting for his first Sunderland goal as 2006 loomed into view. Stead is the classic example of a confidence player and, with that in mind, the Stadium Of Light is the last place he needs to be.

Another million was splashed on Ipswich keeper Kelvin Davis. What Davis lacks in ability in terms of kicking, dealing with crosses, rushing out and communicating with his defenders, he more than makes up for with his… er, nope, sorry. But Kelvin’s not afraid to stand up and cop his share of the blame when appropriate – taking the rap for a late equaliser against West Brom because he had lost his voice.

Then there’s Andy Gray. Regarded by fans young and old as one of the worst players ever to turn out for the club, Gray’s role seems to be as a quirky target man incapable of winning headers while committing stacks of fouls. McCarthy splashed almost a million pounds on Gray from a delighted Sheffield United, and word is that Championship clubs have recently been informed of his renewed availability. Other signings Alan Stubbs and Christian Bassila haven’t been fit long enough to justify comment.

Not helped by some frustrating long-term injuries, we are a pale shadow of last year’s Championship-winning team, a side who weren’t pretty but could grind out results. It’s hard to believe that we were significantly superior to Wigan and West Ham, who have both coped admirably with the step up.

McCarthy now seems to be bereft of ideas and was hardly the most forward-thinking manager to begin with (speaking out against barmy modern techniques such as sports psychologists). His method of breeding stars from the lower leagues has been exposed as unfeasible in the Premiership and the remainder of the season now looks like a warm-up for another promotion campaign.

Six years ago we were within a whisker of topping the Premiership at the season’s mid-point, but have since reverted to type as the yo-yo club that has infuriated its fans for 40 years. But what could a new-fangled sports psychologist really change to improve things? A new nickname couldn’t hurt.

From WSC 228 February 2006. What was happening this month

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