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Where did it go wrong for Phil Parkinson at Sunderland?

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For the benefit of everyone outside the club who can’t get their head around why it needed to happen, Mark Wood has a go at explaining why Parky was sacked.

Sunderland Unveil New Manager Phil Parkinson Photo by Sunderland AFC/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

His disastrous opening spell

In his first 15 games in charge in all competitions Phil Parkinson’s record read as played 15, won 3, drawn 4, lost 8.

This was a manager brought in to replace Jack Ross who in the first 14 games of the season had a record of played 14, won 8 (including 5 straight wins), drawn 4, lost 2.

He was brought we were told, to bring an extra 10% out of the team, a remit of getting the team from a play-off position into the automatic promotion spots by the end of the season. Instead, form nosedived.

After the home defeat to Burton on 26 November the home fans sang ‘ You’re getting sacked in the morning!’ Although results turned around for a couple of months after New Year, it left a mark which he struggled to erase.

Fleetwood Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

Tactics

Very early into his reign, Parkinson went with a system of 5 at the back and stuck to it rigidly til the death. Even when we haven’t had three fit centre halves to play, he would rather play make shift centre backs such as Luke O’ Nien, than change the system. Similarly, he has usually gone for one man up front, with Gooch and Maguire being asked to drift from the flanks behind him. Occasionally this season, he has started with two up front but at the expense of Gooch or Maguire and then when it hasn’t worked, immediately reverted to one up front (usually Charlie Wyke) for the next game.

This has meant that because we were always playing 5 at the back we would only attack with 3 forwards in a 5-2-2-1 or a 5-2-1-2, a forward lighter than under Jack Ross. The plan being to have one of the centre backs (usually Willis) assist on the flanks when attacking. The finer tactical minds can debate what a centre back brings to the attack rather than just playing a number ten.

In most of the games this season the team has struggled to create openings and get shots on target. It was no coincidence that it took a worldy from Leadbitter to open the scoring at Doncaster and apart from a couple of long range efforts from Maguire, that was it. Against Fleetwood, slightly better, apparently we had two attempts on goal - I must have missed the first- but it took a mix up in the home defence for us to score.

This has been the norm and for any team with ambitions of promotion one or two shots on target per game is not good enough. This is a team which has scored a maximum of two goals in a league game all season.

Defensive mix ups in his last two games have led to equalisers but in just defending a one goal lead that can happen. What has been the frustration is that we have never looked like putting the matches out of sight for the opposition. A lot has been said about the lack of substitutions half way through the second half in games, but if there was a bigger lead would they be so important? Then, when have we dominated any team in the League this season to be worthy of anything like a three goal lead?

The tactics clearly were not working, yet Phil Parkinson persisted with them, week in, week out for the past year. A plan A that wasn’t firing, with no plan B except to keep banging away at plan A like trying to knock a nail into a lump of metal with a screwdriver and not admitting defeat.

Sunderland v Portsmouth - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

Charlie Wyke

This could be put under tactics but Charlie Wyke can spark hours of debate, columns, podcasts, phone ins, questions in the commons, all by himself (only joking... just on the last one).

We for the most part are fans, and not coaches or managers or players, but we have watched Parkinson religiously play Wyke and can see that something isn’t right.

He looks like a poacher that is being asked to do a target man’s job. Yet Phil Parkinson has persisted with this for a year. He has tinkered for the odd game by bringing in a strike partner, then when it hasn’t worked has reverted back to Wyke by himself for the next game.

When we last were relegated to the third tier, there was a Eureka moment when Dennis Smith took one look at Eric Gates in training and talked to the player, and asked him what was going wrong.

Eric replied that the team were playing high balls, and asking him to chase down the channels. ‘In that case’ said the new manager, ‘we will play it to your feet’. The rest is history, as Gates and Gabbiadini took Sunderland all the way back to the top flight.

With Charlie Wyke and Phil Parkinson you get the impression there wasn’t a conversation, just that Parkinson took one look at Wyke and thought ‘Ah, a big lad. Smashing, he can play centre-forward for me’.

Sunderland v Burton Albion - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

New Signings

To date only one of his signings, Bailey-Wright, has brought something to the party.

Josh Scowen undoubtably has energy in the middle of the park, but at times you raise your eyebrows at his touch and technique and has yet to convince that he is improving this team. Much as with the young players, Parkinson showed no faith in most of his loan signings last season, and little in the signings for this season.

He has only started O’Brien in the odd game, then immediately returned him to the bench for the next. With little exception he is playing the same team as last season.

As for Danny Graham you have to put the question not only to the manager and the club, but also to the player himself: “why oh why, if you were such a disaster last time, would you want to come back again?”

Oxford United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

No faith in youth

Players like Diamond, Patterson and Neil all stood out in pre season, but have barely had a sniff. Supporters have asked all season why not give at least one of them a go in a team clearly lacking in pace and energy. The fact is that the manager would only start all of them at once in the cup competitions which he deemed of no importance.


Substitutions

The lack of imagination and timing of the now ex-managers subs has been talked of more and more in recent weeks, but was never more evident at Fleetwood where there was a complete contrast between the approach of Parkinson and his opposite number Joey Barton.

With five subs now available, Barton threw on most of his remaining subs for the last 15 minutes, then his last on 80 minutes with the result that half the Fleetwood outfield had fresh legs against a tiring Sunderland team.

Apart from bringing on Will Grigg after 70 minutes, Parkinson made no changes until the 87th minute. Nobody would have been surprised by a Fleetwood winner in the last ten minutes as Sunderland creaked.

Fleetwood Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One - Highbury Stadium Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Aiden McGeady

The club’s most creative player for his first two seasons - and likely to be one of the most highest paid - was banished to South London in January after a row with Parkinson.

Currently, he’s back training with the under 23s after Parkinson refused to engage or resolve their differences even after a year. The whole episode reeked of bloody mindedness and much like his tactics, a manager who was just too stubborn for his own good.

It did not reflect well on him, and with McGeady present in the immediate background once again, this would unlikely to be unnoticed by the club hierarchy.

Sunderland v Rotherham - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

A disregard of the cups

A year ago during his opening spell as manager, Sunderland were knocked out of the FA cup at Gillingham in the first round without a shot on target in the whole game. A week earlier they lost 3-0 at League Two Scunthorpe in the Football League Trophy. A couple of weeks ago we lost at home in the first round of the FA cup against League Two Mansfield.

This is Sunderland, two times winner of the FA cup, six times champions of the league and if we are honest, a fanbase which loves a trip to Wembley.

Nearly 50 years have passed since we last won the FA cup, but there are still plenty of supporters around who have that memory. Amongst the most prominent moments for present fans was the Checkatrade Trophy final at Wembley just a year and a half ago. An unimportant competition? Well 80,000 fans and players from both teams absolutely went for it on the day. Or how about when Borini put us in front against Man City, or the giant killing run to the 92 Final or the run to the 85 Final?

Since when were cups not important no matter what league we are in?

Even some of the fans argue that they are a distraction to the league, but there are plenty more who love a cup run. Yet Phil Parkinson decided on behalf of all of the fans that cups are not important. It was difficult to comprehend that a club like ours would put out what amounted to an experimental team in his eyes, and to the opposition running up the white flag before the kick off.

In years gone by getting knocked out of the cup at the first attempt was the point at which even one or two good Sunderland managers became dead men walking. Phil Parkinson didn’t fall into the category of a good Sunderland manager. Sunderland AFC getting knocked out of the FA Cup in the first round should be an unacceptable standard.

Sunderland v Mansfield Town: Emirates FA Cup First Round Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

He never got the fans onboard

As mentioned at the start, Phil Parkinson was not an appointment that got the fans excited, and his opening spell sunk in the end any hope we had of getting promoted last season. Even after the new year revival, the team had started to fall off the cliff before the Covid enforced shutdown of the campaign.

This season a promising start to the season in terms of results couldn’t mask the performances, and even early on many were of the opinion that Sunderland would not get promoted as they struggled week in week out to break down teams, and relied on a tight defence to bring in the points.

Ultimately, the football was awful with too many long balls, players playing out of position or asked to be play a role that they couldn’t do, in a system that wasn’t creating chances and hardly any attempts on goal.

In the end everyone could see it apart from the manager and fans were openly asking, ‘do you really want to watch another two years of this?’ Sunderland were regressing under Phil Parkinson, slowly and painfully. The lack of attempts on target in recent games is indicative of side with real problems, never mind promotion ambitions.

The general reaction of the fans says it all.

Many questioned the sacking of Jack Ross; most will not miss Phil Parkinson.