A Tuesday night game - a replay in a cup we have no hope of winning away to Gillingham - in front of a small crowd... it’s not a big deal at all, is it? It really shouldn’t be. But we’ve reached the point where you could argue that it has become huge.
Seven days after a near full-strength team was convincingly beaten by struggling Scunthorpe, the general consensus seems to be that we have hit an all-time low. Things can’t possibly get any worse, can they? If we pick a strong side, put in another woeful performance and crash out of the FA Cup they can, and they will.
So, to avoid this, it’s time to start making some statements.
Phil Parkinson needs to make a statement with his team selection, one way or the other. If the statement is; “the FA Cup is not a priority at all - promotion is the one and only objective”, that’s fine. But the statement needs to be loud and clear, with no possible confusion. There are several under 23s travelling with the squad - start them all, rest as many of our key players as possible and don’t even consider bringing them on as substitutes.
At least then if we get knocked out, the supporters will see that, as a club, we decided not to prioritise the game. The rested players won’t be to blame, the majority of fans won’t be on their backs and they will be fresh for Saturday against Coventry.
Take this approach and the performance and result can be easily dismissed and quickly forgotten (hopefully). And if we get result and go through with only half a team out - fantastic - we can take a lot of confidence from that moving forward.
If Parkinson does go down this route then it’s time for the fringe players to make a statement. Something along the lines of, “look at me, I’d run through a brick wall for this club, I’m going to show I’m good enough to start because I’m not satisfied warming the bench / playing in the Under 23s” would be good. What have they got to lose?
Based on our last few performances, there shouldn’t be one senior player on Sunderland’s books who isn’t thinking that they can do better than what they have been seeing out there on the pitch. If they honestly think that they would do worse than the players who are keeping them out of the team, they might as well look for a move to non-league in January. With the exception of Lee Burge’s and Luke O’Nien’s spots, you could argue that there are nine places in the starting XI that are up for grabs. Does anyone want to grab them?
Alternatively, if Parkinson sees it the other way, then the statement he needs to make is; “I’m going to beat this mid-table League One team, then beat another mid-table League One team at the Stadium of Light in a couple of weeks and get us into the hat for the third round. I’m going to give the fans something to get excited about”.
If this is the case, make that statement by picking a bold, attacking formation and putting out the strongest side possible. Find a way to get the players fired up and in the right frame of mind to put in a performance that is the polar opposite of the Scunthorpe humiliation and come away with a result.
My personal view is that, at this point in time, we just need a win of any description. Not because we desperately want a less-than-box-office home tie against AFC Wimbledon or Doncaster, but because we need to stop the rot. Draw a gigantic line under the last six matches and get back to the kind of performance levels that saw us dispatch Tranmere.
That way we can go into a massive home game against Coventry next Saturday with at least something resembling momentum. Another dire performance and another loss will just pile the pressure on the manager and the players and incense the fans to an even higher level.
If Parkinson decides to put out the strongest XI that he has at his disposal, then it is absolutely vital that his big players make a statement with their performances on the pitch. There’s no need to single out individual players, the vast majority of our squad can play football to a much higher standard than they have shown in recent weeks. What I want is a statement from all eleven on the field that says; “we’re going to prove that we’re among the best players in this league, we want to play for Sunderland and we’re up for a battle”.
If they show that in their performance, the supporters will respond.
I mentioned in a previous article that the club and the supporters need a lift. A big home draw against one of the Premier League big boys could be exactly the boost we need. It’s not an impossibility by any means, just a basic six step plan:
- Beat Gillingham tonight.
- Beat AFC Wimbledon / Doncaster in the 2nd round.
- Get a home draw against a Liverpool or a Man City and make the first home game of 2020 a memorable one (or at least a much more appealing prospect than Lincoln).
- Price the tickets competitively, get the PR machine in full flow and market the s*** out of the match.
- Have more than 40,000 at the Stadium of Light and make loads of money to boost the January transfer kitty.
- Put in a great performance but lose valiantly, thus enabling us to focus entirely on the league, win every game and finish the season in the top two.
Alright, I may be getting slightly carried away but my point is valid. It only takes one game to turn a season around - let’s hope that game can be tonight.