This season is but a few games old - so it feels very early to be cast judgement over progress and our prospects for this season. It also feels harsh to judge Phil Parkinson - a manager who stepped into a hugely difficult job around 12 months ago – but we are football fans, so we will as it is in our very nature to do so.
Parkinson took over a club still suffering from its fall from the Premier League; from two Wembley defeats, with a fractured squad and owners who were still either finding their way or looking for a way out – we didn’t and still don’t really know.
So, what could be achieved by the manager under those circumstances?
We are still searching for that elusive football philosophy
It feels like we have been searching for a football philosophy - a pattern of play for literally eons. Is there evidence that Parkinson is establishing one?
I think there are signs – he seems set on a 3-5-2, or small variations on it. For better or worse the team seems to have a few key players in key positions – they are Wright, Hume, O’Nien, Leadbitter, Maguire and Wyke. Are they good enough and are those who slot in around them? We will have to see.
The bigger questions though are whether Parkinson and the squad are capable of finding a Plan B - something which is a variation on that underlying system and philosophy? There is little evidence so far to suggest that there is one, and whether the squad can adapt.
I do however think that some slow progress has been made – Jack Ross relied on the individualism of Josh Maja and Aiden McGeady to win games, and when they were no longer an option we looked lost. We are now much more of a team.
The next challenge for Parkinson is to find some variation in our play which builds on the structure which he has established – some subtle changes before and during games will make a huge difference.
Are he and his players capable, and if so, when will we start to see it?
Pace and attacking intent
As fans, we all want to see a team packed with pace and attacking intent. That’s what gets you out of your seat albeit at the kitchen table these days rather than the Roker End.
To date it isn’t possible to say that Parkinson has achieved this. We have three or four – sometimes effective - attacking options, however none of them involve rapid transition. There is a clear gap in our skill set; it has been a failure of recruitment over too many windows.
It is probably too late for this season to expect a change in personnel but moving the ball more quickly. Speeding up the passing will be a step forward from the attritional game that we have demonstrated so far. I am not sure that there is the will from the manager to change this nor am I sure that the players are capable – we will have to see.
Integration of youth
There isn’t a lot of top-class assets left at the club, but the one thing that remains is the Academy and some of its previous structure. It has been devastating to see so much talent depart in the last two years. Were those departures at the behest of the players, their families and advisers as their ambitions exceeded the club’s new status, or was it to gain some funds to keep the lights on?
Whatever the reasons those lads have gone but there remains a group of young players – Embleton, Diamond, Neil and Kimpioka who have a chance and I think most agree should have had more chances to become first team regulars.
Parkinson – despite some positive words – hasn’t yet been able to integrate any of that group into permanent members of the match day 18. He must do that in the next couple of months if those players are to get a chance to fulfil their potential.
To my mind there is little point in having the clearly unwanted Will Grigg on the bench when Kimpioka, Neil and Diamond could have been. Embleton is a little older and has some experience of first team football and must be placed ahead of the likes of George Dobson and Max Power when he is back to full speed.
Will Parkinson be brave? I think he has to be.
Imposition of discipline
For years there have been rumours of Sunderland being an undisciplined club. Who really knows how much truth there was in those rumours and stories, but there was so much out there that there must have been sufficient truth for the problem to exist in reality.
Whether that was ill-discipline at board level handing out contracts, excess spending, inappropriate use of club funds, the drinking culture and the so-called rotten core. It seems that through necessity the club has tightened up and from a football point of view the squad seem fitter and more focussed than they have been.
There doesn’t appear to be many or even any difficult characters or free loaders now, just honest footballers – albeit with much more limited ability. It may take some more time but that has to be a positive for Parkinson in the rebuild of the club. The first team also seem to be much fitter and this is evidenced in their ability to score late goals.
This would seem to be a short-term win for Parkinson – and a win that should not be underestimated or undervalued. The challenge will be to keep it together.
The only important thing at the end of the day is the results gained by the first team. Have these been good enough and has there been a marked improvement? The answer to those two questions is clearly no. Results aren’t much different to what Jack Ross achieved - they were certainly not good enough, and they must improve.
Parkinson has made some slow and steady progress though but is it enough and how much more time should he get? The only answer to that will be whether the foundations which have been laid will translate into that improvement in results.
The next six weeks will be crucial to his future and probably to the future of the whole club in what really is a battle for its very survival as another season at League One cannot be contemplated.