The dust has settled. Not so much a storm, but social media has mellowed and people are taking a more pragmatic look at things.
Phil Parkinson has been named as the new man at the helm at Sunderland, and whatever camp you pledge allegiance to, happy, concerned or apoplectic, if we are to achieve our aim of promotion this season we quite simply have to back him.
Since Jack Ross was given the boot I’ve thought more and more about his time at the club. Last summer’s trip to Portugal was undertaken with something like eight senior pros; the rest of the squad was padded out with kids and academy players. Lee Cattermole stated later on in the season that he was concerned that we could even be competitive for our first season in the third tier since 1987/88, such was the sheer lack of numbers and senior players at the manager’s disposal. I don’t need to remind you that the club was a mess, arguably in its worst shape since its inception in 1879.
The takeover and the seemingly transparent Stewart Donald and Charlie Methvin restored pride to the area and a feel good factor swept over Sunderland and its passionate fan base. Green shoots of recovery poked through the Stadium of Light wreckage and finally there was hope. Jack Ross played a part in that and managed to stem the tide and get us going in the right direction, quicker than I anticipated if I’m honest, but I now fear that aforementioned hope is slowly dwindling away.
As for the squad itself, Jon McLaughlin has been a good signing. Chris Maguire has been a good signing. Grant Leadbitter has been a good signing. Throw in Bryan Oviedo, Lee Cattermole, Aiden McGeady, Adam Matthews and Josh Maja and the bones were there to have a real go at promotion. We quickly built momentum and we were always in the mix near the top of the league. To me, it didn’t feel quite the same as previous promotion campaigns under Peter Reid, Mick McCarthy or the Championship winning season under Roy Keane. My gut always told me we would fall short.
Whether that was Ross’ tactical frailties becoming horribly exposed (I hoped he would learn from this and learn quickly), the sheer volume of games that we played after our first trip to Wembley, or just the simple fact that the squad wasn’t good enough; who knows? Maybe a combination of all three led to a fruitless end to the season. It is not a debate for today though, and it is one we have all taken part in numerous times over the summer. Many felt it was time to make a change there and then, and part with Ross before 2019/20 kicked off.
For me, he deserved a shot at a second campaign.
Ross had to get his recruitment right this summer. The signings had to be spot on. He strikes me an intelligent man; he should have known exactly where we have needed to strengthen. The question that keeps whirling around in my head is this; is the squad in better shape now than when the season ended at Wembley in May?
Is Laurens De Bock as good a player as Bryan Oviedo? Has Conor McLaughlin showed that he is an upgrade on Adam Matthews? Can George Dobson really fill the hole left by Lee Cattermole? Has Will Grigg adequately replaced Josh Maja? I don’t think we can definitively answer any of these questions today, as the campaign pans out, results and league position will paint the picture for us. What I will say is, at the moment, our current position is more than a slight concern. We have to hope that a change in manager will remedy that.
Ross didn’t get a war chest to spend on players, but he worked on a budget last summer and managed to obtain some astute signings. The club is still a big draw and it shouldn’t be difficult to attract players here; the club more than sells itself. I hope that I am proved emphatically wrong, but I don’t think that the squad is a better one than the one that was beaten by Charlton at Wembley in May.
Phil Parkinson has already said that he knows this group of players well, and knows where he needs to strengthen in January if we need a ‘boost’. In other words, he has already identified areas to improve when the winter window opens. Ross has left him with a squad that is struggling to keep clean sheets, contains midfield players that are too similar to one another and there is a chronic lack of pace in attacking areas.
This will be no easy job for Parkinson. He has many issues to address, and whether we have any financial clout to put it right in January remains to be seen.
For me, Parkinson will need to quickly work out a shape and style to suit the personnel he has at his disposal until January. He has said already this week that we have good technical players who can pass the ball, which is contrary to the direct style that his teams have been labelled as in the past.
Whatever you think of him, he has the experience and the know how to get out of this league. He has done it twice with Colchester and Bolton in the past, and took Bradford out of the fourth tier too. Currently, I’m not quite sure what else we need.
He ticks more than a few boxes for me.
To put it simply, we all need to get behind the new manager and make the Stadium of Light a daunting place for visiting teams and have a real push for promotion to the Championship. Anything else will be detrimental to our chances this season.
Donald’s conversation with Parkinson regarding expectations will have been a simple one - the obligation is to go up. In May, Championship football needs to have been secured. Phil Parkinson cannot do it all on his own. The players need to take that little bit more responsibility when they cross that white line come three o’clock Saturday afternoon.
The fan base needs to pull together and unite so we can leave the third tier behind and get SAFC heading in the right direction. In the coming months, we all have a huge part to play.