After 11 games last season – during which we’d won 5 drawn 4 and lost 2 – Jack Ross was shown the door. With the team sitting in 6th place and with 19 points it was decided enough was enough. We’d not shown enough to demonstrate that we’d get out of the league.
At the time, on face value, it was a decision that was hard to argue with. The team looked to be suffering a play-off hangover, Ross’s new tactics to start the season were seriously undercooked, and we weren’t putting in the performances of a team that was using play-off adversity as serious motivation.
When you think of Sunderland teams bouncing back after a play-off disappointment, you think of Reid’s 1998-99 side or Mick McCarthy’s 04/05 lot.
Reid’s team started the season in determined mood – from the first 11 games, we notched 5 wins 6 draws 0 defeats (21 points), while Mick McCarthy’s side began with 5 wins 2 draws and 4 losses (17 points).
(McCarthy’s team – which wasn’t expected to go up – picked up tremendously, and that may give credibility to the notion of giving a manager time; that was the Championship, and promising signs were there. The job McCarthy did that season was remarkable, and the scale of that accomplishment is severely under-appreciated in the history of SAFC.)
You can, of course, dissect those managers’ runs further in terms of home games vs away games, where the teams we played finished at the end of the season, and so on and so forth to gauge the difficulty of the opening 11 games, but both provide interesting points of comparison.
As mentioned, Ross’s sacking didn’t particularly seem the wrong decision at the time, and this was primarily due to the standards he and the team had set the season before – and the 100 point target publicly set by the owners.
Having only lost five league games in 46 – 2 of those coming in the final 2 games of the season when we were resigned to the play-offs, and another coming in that ridiculous game against Coventry – 2 defeats in 11 seemed like a very poor start to the season.
It wasn’t just the results that Ross came under scrutiny for; performances weren’t deemed good enough, and they weren’t – in the context of a season in which we were all expecting to storm to promotion.
It was all about the level of expectation. It was all about standards.
Upon Parkinson’s arrival, we were told the change had been made to give us that extra edge.
Get us a few more points that would take us from play-off certainties to promotion shoe-ins.
It’s important to reflect on that for a moment because that was his remit. That was the total scope of his job.
For the entirety of the season before – bar the opening couple of games – we’d been third or fourth in the table, no lower, until the last game of the season when we dropped to 5th place.
Going into Ross’s last game, we were 5th, dropping to 6th as a consequence of Lincoln’s win. We were still in a playoff place, and our points per game was 1.72, which as it turned out would have seen us finish in 4th place. We ultimately ended up on 1.64 - Parkinson registering 40 points from his 25 games in charge.
Of course, we know all of this. We know about Parkinson’s horrendous start of 2 wins 2 draws and 4 defeats in his first 8 league games (1 PPG for those playing along at home). We know he also lost 3 and drew 2 cup games in that period of time, too.
What that run of results did do, however, was lower expectations.
It lowered the level of results – and performance – that, as a club, and a fanbase, we deem to be acceptable.
We now know more about the off-field issues Jack Ross had to deal with – takeovers falling through, little transfer backing, pressure from the board – and it’s fair to say Parkinson’s dealing with some of the same. There’s been an exodus of football staff with no replacements, not to mention the global pandemic, salary caps, and the 19-20 season coming to an abrupt end.
It’s certainly not an easy job.
However, on the field – where, in the end, everything counts – performances have been mixed, as have results.
I’m a fairly optimistic supporter, and hoped coming into the season Parkinson would have built on some promising signs after that horrendous spell last campaign, refined the team and would give some of the youngsters a chance.
It seems like that optimism was somewhat misplaced.
We don’t look like a side storming to promotion; we don’t look like a side that’s going to outperform other teams in a division that already looks significantly weaker than what we’ve faced before.
We have ground out some good results, and in patches put in some good performances.
However, we certainly don’t look like a team with an edge; a playoff certainty turned promotion shoe in.
Far from it.
Bar a solid (but limited) tactical base – in which, to Parkinson’s credit, every player seems to know their job – we’ve seen very little on the field to give us a great deal of hope.
We’re not seeing young players being brought through to give us something to cling on to.
We’re not seeing the foundations of a team that could step up into the championship.
We’re not seeing a lot.
We look like a club and a team that’s accepted being in League One. We’re seeing nothing on or off the field to dispel this, and the only thing we have to cling to is results.
So how long does the club accept this decline in standards and ambition? How long do they give Parkinson to prove he can give us that edge; that extra 10%?
So far, after 8 games this season, we’re sitting in 7th position with 15 points – 1.87 ppg, which isn’t too bad. We’re already 7 points behind leaders Lincoln, albeit with a game in hand.
Our next three games will take us to the number of games Jack Ross was given last season, and to better his points tally – which was deemed unacceptable – we need 5 points. A win and two draws.
On Saturday we face Gillingham away – the nightmare of our performance there last season still fresh in many minds – which is followed by the visit of 3rd placed Ipswich. Ten days after that comes our 11th game of the season, at home to MK Dons, followed by a trip to Doncaster.
The Ipswich and MK Dons games are punctuated by two cup fixtures, Mansfield at home in the FA Cup, and Fleetwood away in the EFL Trophy.
It’s a tough run of games, and while the owners may be hesitant to make a change from a financial perspective, a club performing well in League One and heading for promotion is a significantly more attractive asset than one that’s bound for mid-table mediocrity.
Of course there’s mitigating factors. The club’s up for sale, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. There’s a valid argument to say that (almost) regardless of anything else, the club needs stability in the manager’s chair. And I accept all of those things have some credibility.
Ultimately, however, this is a run of games that could well determine whether Parkinson has a future at SAFC or not.
After all, he has to be held to the same, if not higher, standards to which his predecessor was.