AS he sat in the press room an hour or so after Sunderland’s 3-0 defeat to Aston Villa on Tuesday night, Chris Coleman’s face told a thousand stories. There was anger there, along with frustration. Bitter disappointment, as well as understandable concern about what might lie ahead. More than anything, though, Coleman’s expression was one of complete bewilderment. How on has it ended up like this?

As he left the room, one of my colleagues with more than three decades of experience of covering the North-East patch summed things up perfectly. “There goes someone who has been Sunderland-ed,” he said. In less than four months, Coleman has been institutionalised in the same way as so many that have gone before him.

Sunderland fans bridle when the task of managing their club is described as “the impossible job”, rightly pointing out that Sam Allardyce made a decent fist of it under the current regime. They have a point, but the brutal reality is that what Coleman is having to deal with now is a world apart from what Allardyce was tackling a matter of two seasons ago.

Allardyce had a devilishly difficult task as he battled to try to keep Sunderland in the Premier League, but there was money to spend and players who he proved were up to the task. Coleman has none of that. He has inherited an empty shell of a club, stripped of not only its assets, but also its heart. From top to bottom, the stench of decay is impossible to avoid. Like so many of the stay-away fans that decided to avoid the Stadium of Light on Tuesday, he could hardly be forgiven for wanting to throw in the towel.

Which begs the question, of course, why did he opt to join Sunderland in the first place? He was asked that again this week, and delivered the same answer he has stuck to since he walked out of the Wales job in November. He spoke of the immense potential at a club the size of the Black Cats. He confirmed his enduring belief that someone, eventually, will get things to click, and insisted he has “no regrets” about his decision. Increasingly, though, you wonder if even he believes what he is saying.

He will reach the four-month anniversary of his Sunderland tenure in a fortnight’s time, yet he has already completed the cycle that most of the club’s managers go through.

It starts with optimism, and the excitement that inevitably accompanies a new appointment. Great club, fantastic facilities, passionate and committed supporters. Never mind that there’s no money to spend and an absentee owner living on the other side of the world, just get back to basics and do the simple things right. Start to generate some momentum, and things will quickly snowball.

A few bad results quickly dent that initial confidence, but it takes a while for it to completely disappear. Progress remains possible, results could still improve. If only a couple of injured players would get back fit, if only the defenders would cut out their silly errors.

The days turn into weeks, the weeks into months, and gradually it becomes clear that nirvana is not going to arrive. The injured players don’t return, the mistakes keep coming. And all the while, a grim sense of crushing inevitability takes hold.

Forget the glory days of Stokoe and Montgomery, Quinn and Phillips. Forget the memory of a sold-out Stadium of Light, rocking to the rafters. This is where Sunderland are now – a cobbled-together collection of cast-offs and kids, paralysed by fear in front of thousands of empty seats.

That is not meant as any kind of criticism of the Stadium of Light support – those who continue to turn up week in, week out deserve a medal – but even the staunchest of fans would have to concede that the match-day experience on Wearside at the moment is brutally hard to endure.

Coleman knows that, conceding in the wake of Tuesday’s defeat that it was probably a good thing that Saturday's game against QPR is taking place at the opposite end of the country. You could understand where he was coming from, but publicly acknowledging as much is surely the beginning of the end.

Not for Coleman, who has made his bed, and will now have to lie in it. But for any hope that his appointment would spark a meaningful change.

The 47-year-old comes across as a thoroughly decent bloke. He clearly cares passionately about his responsibilities as Sunderland boss, and for all that it is possible to question how he would have got on as Wales manager had he not been fortunate enough to have been working with Gareth Bale, his record at international level means he would almost certainly have been considered for a job in the Premier League had he not opted to move to the Stadium of Light.

He genuinely believed he could be the one to transform the Black Cats’ fortunes. Judging by his expression on Tuesday night, though, that has been beaten out of him. Twenty games into his reign, and he has been well and truly ‘Sunderland-ed’.


AS a sports journalist, I’m immensely fortunate to attend some of the best sporting events in the world, but it’s rare I get the chance to forget about working and go somewhere purely as a fan.

So whenever anyone asks me what my favourite sporting day of the year is, I always provide the same answer. Day one of the Cheltenham Festival, from a position halfway between the bookmakers and the Guinness Village.

There’s something uniquely special about Cheltenham, and I’ll be making my annual pilgrimage next week along with my brother. As a journalist, it’s sometimes easy to get obsessed about the minutiae of sport, when actually it’s the all-round experience that is so special.

Yes, I’ll enjoy the racing next week, and the thrill of watching some of the best horses in the world soaring over the Festival fences. But I’ll also relish the craic and the beer, the whispers from a group of Irish lads you meet in the pub the night before racing or the bacon sandwich and Racing Post that herald the start of another new race day.

If you’ve never been to Cheltenham before, do it just the once. Even if you’ve not really got any interest in racing, I promise you’ll get swept away in the drama of it all. The colours as the horses leave the paddock, the crazy hubbub as you queue to put on a bet, the roar that sweeps down the course as the starter lowers his flag for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. If you’re going next week, be lucky. If you’re not, wish me luck instead.