This article titled “Joe Ralls grabs winner as Cardiff City pile on the misery for Sunderland” was written by Louise Taylor at the Stadium of Light, for The Observer on Saturday 23rd September 2017 17.15 UTC
Simon Grayson had already ripped off his red and white club tie when he took a long gulp of water and embarked on a brutally honest monologue.
His Sunderland side have not won a home game of any description since last December and, currently third bottom, appear in peril of following last spring’s relegation from the Premier League with an another tumble into League One.
“No club is too good to go down, we’ve seen that before with Leeds,” said David Moyes’s successor. “Just because you’ve got Sunderland on the badge on your shirt doesn’t mean you can’t be relegated.
“We’re making poor decisions and bad mistakes. We’ve made fundamental errors and been punished. Players have to accept responsibility and start learning.
“At times we’re a little too easy to play against, we make unforced errors. It’s not good enough for a club of this size but, at this moment in time, this is not a difficult place for the opposition.”
Since taking charge of Sunderland in the summer, Grayson has presided over only one league victory and could merely watch enviously as Neil Warnock’s high-flying Cardiff City suggested that, come next spring, their 68-year-old manager could yet be celebrating a record eighth promotion.
The former Preston manager can only hope that Cardiff’s modern history might yet prove a template for Sunderland’s eventual rebirth.
“When Neil first went to Cardiff he had similar problems to us,” Grayson said. “The club had financial problems and there were players who didn’t want to be there. There were some professionals on too much money for Neil to get rid of but he’s adapted the squad, got things settled and it’s beginning to bear fruit.”
Warnock’s personality and modus operandi has long polarised opinion but he is an expert at reacquainting clubs with the concept of togetherness and ensuring results surpass the apparent sum of a team’s components.
Eleven months on from his installation in south Wales he has helped repair a major disconnection between board and supporters and talks of being “proud of putting the pride back into this club”. How Grayson must wish he could stumble across a similar elixir.
With Nathaniel Mendez-Laing posing Sunderland’s back three all sorts of problems, Cardiff swiftly asserted their superiority in front of a 25,733 crowd inside a barely half-full stadium.
Only six minutes had passed when, with Lamine Koné wrong-footed, Craig Bryson volleyed the visitors into the lead. Koné’s value has depreciated dramatically since the summer of 2016 when Moyes turned down an £18m bid from Everton for the centre half.
If both that example of slapdash defending and Lee Cattermole’s subsequent, needless, booking for a silly foul on Bryson – who frequently seemed to be man-marking Grayson’s captain – appeared horribly emblematic of the flaws and the frustrations which have undermined Sunderland for far too long, they at least postponed their ultimate surrender.
Indeed a slight improvement manifested by a 25 yard Bryan Oviedo shot which hit a post, ensured that the boos at half time were muted.
Nonetheless, locals are already asking whether Grayson really is the right man to lead them out of the wilderness. Watching the team play it is easy to understand why but his performance should be seen in the wider context of the club’s brutal summer cost cutting.
Although Sunderland earned £40m from close season player sales – most notably Jordan Pickford’s £30m move to Everton – as 15 professionals departed, Martin Bain, the chief executive, permitted the manager to spend a grand total of £1.25m on 10 new recruits. Along the way, the wage bill was halved but remains high for the second tier.
Such pruning has created room for academy products like Lynden Gooch in Grayson’s starting X1. Gooch equalised early in the second half when, having been brought down by Sean Morrison he scored from the penalty spot.
Koné’s manhandling of Morrison prefaced another penalty at the opposite end where Joe Ralls’s 12 yard kick restored Cardiff’s lead. Cue plenty of visiting time-wasting which ensured the Wearsiders were well and truly Warnocked.
“Playing like this it’s going to be very difficult for us to get results against experienced teams like Cardiff,” said Grayson. “I’m frustrated – again – but I knew this job was going to be a tough task. It’s not something I’m going to shy away from.”
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