Two years ago, Bob Murray looked into his crystal ball and was delighted with the vision he saw. "In two years we will be in the top pecking order of English football and among the top 20 richest clubs in the world," the Sunderland chairman proclaimed at the end of the 2000-01 season.
"I am excited about where I see Sunderland being, and not many are privileged like me to know what is on the horizon. We will have a £10m-plus academy, which will make players want to stay at Sunderland. I can't tell you how good it is going to be. We want to strengthen and move the squad forward, to get into Europe and win silverware."
As broken dreams go, the shattered one on Wearside takes some beating. The nightmare reality for Murray is that Sunderland have not so much slipped as nosedived headlong into the second- class order of English football - from seventh in the Premier-ship two years ago to the First Division on a losing streak of 15 matches. Instead of finding riches, they have been left with rags.
Sunderland have debts of £30m and an annual wage bill of £25m. They have spent the summer liaising with the Professional Footballers' Association and an insolvency lawyer in a desperate attempt to avert administration. They have shed 70 members of staff and closed retail outlets in Sunderland city centre and in Gateshead MetroCentre.
The high-earning players have agreed a deferment of part of their salaries until next summer, but Sunderland's plight remains dire. The downturn in the transfer market has left the highest earners and the free-transfer players still on the books, and reduced the fees for the few outgoing players to well below expectations. Gavin McCann has gone to Aston Villa for £2.25m, little more than half the original asking price. A similar fee has been agreed for Thomas Sorensen to join the midfielder at Villa Park, less than half the figure Sunderland wanted for their Danish goalkeeper at the start of the summer, and even that money has been held up because of a wrangle over severance pay.
The situation became so bad last week that Sunderland had to accept a bid of £1.7m for Jody Craddock, one of the players Mick McCarthy had banked on keeping for an attempted promotion push that starts against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground next Saturday. The Sunderland manager's rebuilding plans have been thrown into disarray, with no money to spend on recruits, with "freed" players Phil Babb, Emerson Thome, Thomas Myhre and Joachim Bjorklund still in his squad, and with high-earning, high-priority sales such as Kevin Phillips, Tore Andre Flo, Julio Arca and Michael Gray all stuck in the shop window.
"It's not an easy situation to be in, managing Sunderland at the moment," McCarthy conceded. "The simple fact is that the club are looking to sell players to balance the books, and I don't really know who I'll be dealing with day by day.
"In an ideal world, players like Kevin Phillips and Thomas Sorensen - players we've accepted will have to leave the club - would have gone, and their moves would have eased our position financially. But the players we expected to go haven't gone, and the players we gave free transfers to are still here.
"This is by far and away the most difficult situation I've found myself in as a manager. It's frustrating, but this is the position I've inherited. I knew all about it and I have to make the best of things. There's nothing I can do about players being sold, and the wage bill still has to come down before I can get some new people in. There's no point complaining about it. You've got to get on with it."
It remains to be seen whether McCarthy will get on with the new season with his most striking asset leading his forward line. Phillips has played no part in Sunderland's pre-season games and has been given the No 19 shirt in the club's squad list for the looming First Division campaign. His old No 10 shirt has been passed on to Marcus Stewart, with whom McCarthy intends to pair Kevin Kyle in a new-look forward line. The chances are that Phillips will go before the transfer window closes at the end of the month, but at a knockdown price.
Back in March 2000, when the little goal-poacher was en route to the European Golden Boot in his first Premiership season, Sunderland could afford to turn up their noses when talk of a £20m bid from Leeds United was mooted. So far this summer, the highest bid for Phillips, who turned 30 last month, has been less than half the minimum £4m the Sunderland board are now prepared to accept.
That offer was tabled by Middlesbrough, though the Scottish champions, Rangers, have shown a long-term interest. Alex McLeish sees Phillips as the Ibrox answer to Henrik Larsson but, like McCarthy, the Rangers manager needs to sell before he can buy. Even then, Sunderland would have to reduce their asking price, and Phillips would have to lower his wage demands from £35,000 a week to the £12,000 ceiling that has been imposed at Ibrox.
With Charlton and Birmingham emerging as likely bidders, and Southampton expected to follow suit, perhaps Phillips will get back his place on the football gravy train. For Sunderland, a season in second class is the least of their worries. They still need the money for the ride.
Three to thrive in the First Division
Andy Hughes (Reading)
Goalscoring midfielder who supplemented the Royals' push into the play-offs with nine goals. The 25-year-old started on the right-hand side but is also comfortable playing in the centre, and will be a key component.
Jason Koumas (West Brom)
One of the most promising midfield prospects, with top-flight experience under his belt already. Koumas was one of the Baggies' best players during their debut season in the Premiership, and they will look to him to lead them back.
Robert Earnshaw (Cardiff)
The 22-year-old has a chance to test First Division defences after proving a thorn in the side of lower teams. His electric pace is his weapon. Scored 36 goals in Cardiff's promotion season, which saw him make his senior Wales debut.Reuse content