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Parkinson’s Priorities: What jobs must the new Sunderland manager tackle first?

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A new manager graces the grounds and dressing rooms of Sunderland AFC and everyone is waiting to see what happens next, but there’s no time to rest on laurels - Phil Parkinson has a job to do, and it starts now.

Sunderland Unveil New Manager Phil Parkinson Photo by Sunderland AFC/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Sooth Grigg’s savaged ego

When Will Grigg held a scarf aloft outside the Academy of Light Sunderland fans got excited. Here was a man with goal scoring pedigree, fit for purpose in our plans to lay siege to the gates of the Championship. Like so many greats before him he came fully equipped with a biographical chant and a price tag that would make any League One fan wince.

Sadly as the weeks went by, our excitement was tempered by that pain in the arse we call reality. Try as he might, Grigg simply couldn’t establish dominance in the vanguard of the team and as his mistakes waxed, his confidence visibly waned.

By the fireside in a dark mansion in a not too distant place, in the dead of night and with artisan Gin in hand, Stewart Donald checks his bank account the same way he does every night. Not because he needs to know how much he has in there - because he knows there’s a £3,000,000 hole where a feeling of money well spent should be. He sighs and closes the app, drains the balloon glass and retires to his Empress-sized water bed. He curses himself and swears to stop doing it, but in the back of his mind he knows he’ll check it again tomorrow.

All is not lost, though. Following the vein of Parkinson’s attacking ethos, perhaps this is the chance for Will Grigg to reach out with both hands and take back control of his future at Sunderland. All strikers know that if you play for long enough you’ll eventually hit a wall (wahey) but that’s almost statistically inevitable.

Undoubtedly, it’s your reaction to prolonged bouts of misfortune (if that is indeed what troubles Grigg) that decides whether you’re going to recapture your form, or fade into the background. At the moment Grigg stands very much in the background and whenever he finds himself a few feet short of getting to a ball, or scuffs it wide, he visibly wilts.

I can’t blame him and I don’t envy him, but it will take a firm arm around his shoulder to recapture the idea squarely in his mind that he is more than capable of taking on his opponents and smashing in goals for Sunderland this season.

Phil Parkinson has quite the obstacle to surmount when it comes to the player’s shattered confidence, and it will have to take top priority if Will Grigg is to become a name synonymous with the success of Sunderland AFC.

Sunderland v MK Dons - Sky Bet League 1 Photo by Steven Hadlow/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Fit square pegs into square holes

There is a theory that Charlie Wyke has been underutilised so far in his time at the club, and considering Parkinson tried to sign him from Bradford himself it’ll be interesting to see if he changes the way we play to get the most from him.

It’d be welcome, because at times it’s been as painful to watch Wyke struggle as it is to watch Grigg. Neither player arrived at Sunderland with a point to prove, having proven it several times before, so it must be disheartening to put effort in and draw out only a modicum of satisfaction from it. He has far fewer detractors than Will Grigg, partly because he didn’t cost the Earth and also because he didn’t come with his own song.

To most fans it’s been obvious for some time that Wyke wasn’t playing in roles that suited his stature or his lack of pace, and so often is left isolated and surrounded by opponents with few alternatives but to wait for them to bungle him to the floor and hope for a free kick.

Equally, the roles of Luke O’Nien and George Dobson were particularly scatter-gun under the late manager, and his successor may well look at ways to figure both men into his team in their proper roles on a more regular basis. It doesn’t do to have players train and condition themselves over a period of years in one position, honing their abilities in key areas of said position, only to dismiss that cumulative experience on a match day.

We would be remiss if we blamed Ross entirely for the circumstances that at times demanded that players be played out of position, but no one can wholly absolve him from making the choice often, and at puzzling times.

The intent of the new manager to utilise players in their true positions will not only benefit the confidence of the players and the team as a whole, but it will allow the chance of eking out every little drop of ability in the aspects that role demands, and which they have trained to fulfil. It is a positive ethos and a necessary one. If there’s one key ingredient to the recipe of apathy in the stands it’s negative football. Too often Sunderland have succumbed to a dreadful need to defend thin leads, or to pull themselves to the brink of victory before dangling in place for the duration of games.

Parkinson’s supporters have suggested that his style of football is direct, organised yet clinical in attack, and this needs to be the case. Not only do we have some of the better attacking players in the division, but the Sunderland faithful want - nay, crave - excitement and the balm of positive intent. Football is entertainment after all, and it’s easier to swallow a loss when the team has fought hard to avert that outcome. Bringing our firepower to bear on our opponents should be a tenet of the new gaffer, both for our chances of success in this division and to alleviate the pessimism that so readily follows any bump in the road.

Sunderland v Rotherham - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Utilise competition between the sticks

Jon McLaughlin has had quite the time of it in recent weeks. What began as a blip fast became a regular occurrence, and the trepidation of seeing his name on the team sheet ahead of his compatriot Lee Burge is real.

Of course we know that McLaughlin is a decent ‘keeper, though out of all the squad he was perhaps lucky to escape a fair portion of blame for our play-off tragedy last season. The purpose of having two on-par goalkeepers is multi-faceted, because it isn’t simply for backup. In an ideal world we have players competing for every position, week in, week out, but there’s little point to it if the player that performs better isn’t rewarded with a run in the first team.

Many would argue that Lee Burge earned the right to test his mettle in the league but Jack Ross was seemingly reluctant to make that change. We can speculate that he believed the best thing for McLaughlin’s form was a solid run and a chance to regain his confidence, but the consequence was more needlessly conceded goals.

Phil Parkinson has to ensure that, based on everything he can see, the role between the sticks is a constant tug o’ war between McLaughlin and Burge, and that when one excels he is justly gifted his chance as first name on the team sheet.

Sheffield United v Sunderland AFC - Carabao Cup Third Round Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

January isn’t far off - start planning now

Sunderland AFC have so often been guilty of under-preparedness in their transfer business. The saying “putting all your eggs in one basket” springs to mind, and while it isn’t the manager’s job to deal with agents and their ilk, he simply has to impress upon the recruitment team the exact type of player he needs to achieve his remit of promotion, and that process should begin almost immediately if he’s to stand any chance of doing so.

The outcome of a recruitment process is influenced by so many variables that absolutely nothing is set in stone. From the glaring issues of financial clout and the infamously unattractive proposition of living in Sunderland (weirdos), to the nuanced judgement of talent scouts and the intricate details of contract negotiation and conference room diplomacy, absolutely everything is subject to the whims of chaos. Sod’s law so often applies to a transfer window, and never so much as where Sunderland AFC are concerned.

I reiterate that it isn’t Parkinson’s job to juggle all of these problems and produce a positive outcome, but his opinion is the catalyst for any incoming players in the near future and therefore our chances of success - if he can analyse his squad with a knowing eye and then make his expectations crystal clear, he can arm the recruitment team with what they need to go out and hunt down the best possible options for the squad and the manager.