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The Sunderland Manager Checklist: What characteristics should our next boss have?

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Some of us want to see a change of manager at Sunderland. Question is: what kind of manager does this club actually need?

There’s been plenty of the talk among Sunderland supporters in recent weeks and months about the future of the current Black Cats manager, Phil Parkinson.

Despite a fairly decent start to the season, the quality of football and lack of convincing performances has many supporters – most of whom weren’t fully in support of his appointment in the first place – wondering whether this team under his leadership will have enough come the end of the season to finish top two, a position we have yet to hold this season.

As we found out last season, having a high Points Per Game (PPG) total can be quite literally the difference between staying up and staying put, particularly as there are no guarantees about this season not ending in the same way as the last one did. It’s not inconceivable that the EFL bailout isn’t forthcoming, and as such the season could be cancelled before all the remaining games are played.

Should the season need to end early, and the final league placings are decided once more on PPG, Sunderland need to be up there.

A lack of convincing performances aside, there are other things that Parkinson finds himself contending with currently.

His inability to fully integrate youth players remains a black mark against his name, as does the insistence on signing over-the-hill players with no resale value. Also add to that the very real possibility that the ownership situation could change in a matter of weeks, and you have to wonder: is he on borrowed time?

My opinion is that yes, he is.

Regardless of results, Parkinson’s philosophy on football is unlikely to change soon. Even when we’re doing okay – though, note the highest place we’ve held in the league table this season is 4th – it doesn’t feel as though many are convinced by Parky’s credentials as a long-term option for the football club.

The change in ownership could well decide his fate.

As is often the case when a new owner comes in, they may want to select their own manager to lead the club into a new era.

With that in mind, I wanted to ask my fellow supporters: if a managerial change is in the offing, just what kind of manager would you like to see us appoint?

I posted a tweet to garner replies, and in truth, I was glad to see the level of response.

Here, I’ve collated the most common suggestions - and it appears that most of us are on the same page with what we want.

Soccer - Ligue 1 - Olympique Marseille vs. Paris St. Germain PSG
Kyril Louis-Dreyfus pictured with his mother Margarita in 2012
Photo by liewig christian/Corbis via Getty Images

Someone who believes fully in developing young players and creating a stronger bond between the first team and academy

Sunderland’s Category One academy is truly the jewel in the club’s crown. Yet, it feels as though nobody has taken full advantage of just what it can provide the football club with, providing that a long-term plan is put in place.

While we’ve seen a handful of academy talents brought through into the senior side since we dropped into the third tier, something doesn’t feel quite right. It doesn’t feel as though there is a clear pathway for young players from the youth sides to the first team.

Just take a look at Ethan Robson, for example. There’s a player who probably should have made it but didn’t for a number of reasons. He may well prove the club wrong in deciding to let him go, but we’ll see.

Going further back we allowed the likes of John Egan to depart for nothing.

Then, of course, players like Bali Mumba and Joe Hugill were allowed to leave without the club putting up much of a fight this past summer.

In Mumba’s case he was allowed to go out on loan to South Shields in his final season instead of playing in our first team – and now he’s wowing fans of Norwich in the Championship. Somewhere, at some point, we got it wrong with Bali, and we managed to lose a prized asset for a relatively measly sum of money.

Whoever the next Sunderland manager is has to understand just how important our academy is. Especially when we are a third tier club - our academy should be a production line for our senior side. And before they’re even ready to play for the first team, these lads should have gone out on loan and gained vital experience before returning ready to play regular minutes in the senior side.

The Sunderland manager should also be fully invested in how we recruit players, both domestically and abroad, for our U23 side. We aren’t going to be able to produce, say, three-to-five first team players every year just with lads from the local area – with a long-term plan of progression from academy to first team. our academy recruitment should become almost more important than our senior recruitment.

With a Category One academy, you should be running things in a way where the players you sign aged 15, 16, 17 and 18 are coming in because you have a proven record of providing players their age with an environment to flourish and develop, before eventually moving on to bigger things.

In my opinion, Sunderland should want to be known as a club where young players come to earn their stripes and move on to the next level – like Southampton or, say, Brentford.

Conversely, the first team manager should buy fully into that ethos, and want a large part of their role to be in developing the stars of the future by providing players with a clear pathway into the first team squad, thus bringing down the average age of the squad and making us a younger, slicker outfit.


Someone with a strong, honest, likeable character

Without being too harsh on the bloke, it’s fair to say that Phil Parkinson hardly gives off the impression that he’s the life and soul of the party. He certainly doesn’t ooze charisma – he’s not got what you’d call a ‘big’ personality. That’s very important.

To my mind, most of the (relatively) successful managers in my lifetime have been big, brash characters who have the ability to both take the weight of the city on their shoulders, while giving off an aura to supporters that they are capable, and know what they’re doing.

It’s often said that to be successful as the manager of Sunderland you need to have the right kind of character. Fans like to look up to the manager. They like to feel reassured. People like it when a person in a position of power has an infectious personality.

They might be a little crazy... they might not always get it right, or say the right things. But if they show passion and give us the impression that they know what they’re doing, and show they’re relatable, then it’s a big tick in the right box.


Someone ambitious, who has high standards

This might sound a little bizarre – of course, no manager in the professional game goes into a job without wanting to achieve something. They all want to win as many games as they can, and they know that picking up points on a regular basis is conducive to achieving success come the end of the season.

Yet, I’d be lying if I said that any of the managers we’ve had since Sam Allardyce have really pushed the boundaries and saw through the club’s limitations when it comes to setting their goals and showing that they’re ambitious.

Even when we dropped into the third tier, it never really felt that Jack Ross ‘got it’. We drew too many games when he was manager, and most fans felt like those results came because we’d shut up shop after scoring, instead of going for the throat.

Similarly, Parkinson’s blasé attitude towards losing games against far weaker opposition has rankled with some supporters. Recently, for instance, he shrugged off the Mansfield cup defeat after a terrible performance, and didn’t seem overly concerned by our performance against Rochdale.

Most football fans would like to see a manager be more honest with their fanbase. It’ll probably curry favour for you when you illustrate that you’re seeing the same things as us, whilst showing honesty and humility. Drawing and losing regularly against teams who don’t have the same ambitions that we do should not be accepted – it would be nice for someone to come along and raise the standards, and remind everyone constantly that we are on a journey to achieving bigger and better things.


Someone who plays attractive, positive football, and has a philosophy we can buy in to

As Adam suggests in the tweet below: you’d have to think pretty hard to remember the last time Sunderland had a manager who played attractive football on the front foot.

I get that in the top flight it’s harder to play teams off the park, but in the third tier it really isn’t asking much for the manager to set up his teams to play attacking football.

What irritates me about the Parkinson appointment is that we knew exactly what we were getting with him, because his teams have played in almost the same manner wherever he’s managed.

The result of his style of play has been that we don’t score many goals, we struggle to break teams down, and we don’t pass the ball particularly well, or at a high enough tempo.

To his credit, we don’t concede many goals, but I reckon that most fans would take conceding a few more here and there if it meant we saw a more attractive, expansive brand of football on the pitch.

In truth, and this probably sounds a little churlish, I’d love to feel excited again about watching my team play a game of football. I’m not asking for us to play like Guardiola’s Barcelona – though it would be nice – but I’d like to see a Sunderland team in the third tier playing positive, attractive football more often than not.

Wouldn’t it be great to be feared again?

Ultimately, though, it would be nice to be able to see exactly what the manager is trying to do with the way we play: a philosophy for us all to buy in to, with a style of play that fits the way we recruit new players – a way of playing that makes potential signings want to come and play for us. It’s not asking for too much.


Someone we can get behind with a long-term plan in mind

When Phil Parkinson was appointed we were told it was with one thing in mind: to achieve promotion. With two League One promotions on his CV, that seemed fair enough – he has, in the past, previously demonstrated the ability to get Bolton and Colchester out of this division.

He hasn’t however shown the ability to sustain a team following promotion, or hold down a job in the Championship for a decent length of time. By definition he’s a short-term appointment, someone you bring in to either shore up a side headed down the wrong path, or tighten up the defence of a team leaking too many goals which, in turn, takes them from being just below the promotion places to a team challenging for a spot in the play-offs.

The fact remains though that since Parkinson became manager, Sunderland have never been inside the top two of this division – not even for one game week.

While he was brought in to get us out of the division, in all honesty I’m not sure that there was much of a plan for what happened next, even if he did get us there.

Really, that’s not good enough.

The short-term appointments, at some stage, need to stop. Eventually, we have to settle on a manager who fits the bill and ticks every box, and give them the time they need to truly build something at Sunderland.

You’d struggle to find a single person who looks at Phil Parkinson and thinks “yup, that’s our man – that’s the fella who should lead Sunderland over the next three or four years!”

Ideally, that manager should be someone you can look at, assess their credentials, and really get behind. Someone who, when appointed, gives you a vision of a more prosperous, successful future.


So... who is the ‘right’ man for the job?

Finding someone that ticks all of those boxes might seem like a difficult task, but I honestly think that with a better footballing structure we’d attract the right kind of manager.

That’s what is perhaps most important – ensuring that before there is a change in manager that the structure around them is in place to ensure that this club has a plan for the next five, ten or fifteen years.

Sacking Phil Parkinson tomorrow and replacing him with another manager with similar characteristics and experience does not give the impression that you have the long-term future of the club in mind.

With a change in ownership in the near future looking likely, perhaps now is the right time to start thinking about the direction we truly want to see Sunderland AFC go in.

As they say, a new broom sweeps clean - will a new owner look to finally put something in place at Sunderland that sets us up on a path towards bigger and brighter things? Or, will Stewart Donald nip in and get the job done before the club changes hands?

People who read this site often might recall that for some time now I’ve championed the implementation of a proper corporate and footballing structure at Sunderland.

I firmly believe that the failure to recognise this is what ultimately led to Stewart Donald’s downfall as Chairman – instead of putting the blocks in place to start from scratch at a point in our history when it made most sense to do so, he instead went with what he knew best. Instead of employing people who were very good at their jobs, he employed people he knew and trusted, because it made him feel comfortable.

Ultimately. that mentality has to change.

If Kyril Louis-Dreyfus is indeed about to become the new owner of Sunderland AFC, we can only hope that his plan is to drag Sunderland into the 21st century, overhauling the leadership structure of the club. That will be the first real marker put down if he does indeed take charge - a real show of intent to the fans that he’s serious about developing the club and setting it up for a successful, sustainable future.

With a proper footballing structure in place – with a Director of Football/Sporting Director above the manager being the first appointment that I’d make in the new era – the introduction of a head coach or manager who is willing to work alongside someone in a senior footballing capacity above them is a logical step in the right direction. It’s nothing new - most top level professional clubs across the world operate in this way.

I know that this is a cop out, but I think I’ll reserve making suggestions for now - let’s clear the first hurdle in changing ownership. Perhaps an overhaul of the footballing structure, placing a new man in charge of the first team, will form part of their introductory plan - who knows? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

This is just my vision though - I’d be intrigued to hear yours, and your suggestions for who you think should be the next Sunderland manager.