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New Era, New Low

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This squad needs dismantling and rebuilding, but with time not on Johnson’s side, he’s going to need to work some serious magic to haul this team back up towards the right end of the table. 

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

So, the new era is upon us. Phil Parkinson is gone, his brand of football hopefully condemned to a forgotten chapter in the Sunderland history books.

With a new sporting director - Kristjaan Speakman - on board, and Lee Johnson recruited as head coach, we are at last trying to reshape the club into a progressive, forward-thinking organisation.

Speakman, who gave an articulate interview on his arrival, spoke of his vision of a ‘brave new Sunderland’. A romantic and admirable notion, and one that does at least offer us hope that the road back to the top-flight might contain more upsides than negatives.

However, these off-field developments couldn’t mask the fact that we were in atrocious form going into the weekend. On Saturday, the task in hand was clear: beat bottom-of-the-table Wigan, and reignite what has been a spluttering League One campaign thus far.

There was no grand unveiling of the new manager, and no raucous crowd to welcome Johnson to his new home. Perhaps this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, because Johnson’s brief is clear: promotion, at any and all costs. The fanfare can wait until if and when we finally secure our ticket out of this league. Until then, it has to be all business.

Pre-match, the ever-polarising Aiden McGeady was the talk of social media, seemingly brought into the fold after a long and much-discussed period of exile. A gamble, or a sure-fire way of getting the team’s toothless attack firing again?

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

As it was, McGeady slotted straight back into the starting eleven, with Will Grigg also selected, as we reverted to a much more attack-minded 4-3-3 formation. It was also a relief to see Lee Burge back between the sticks after another costly error from Remi Matthew during the previous game against Burton.

Down to business we got, and in the early stages, there was a noticeable increase in tempo, and a greater level of attacking intent. The ball was being moved around with purpose, and there seemed to be much more energy, and there was some neat passing on display. McGeady played three promising crosses into the Wigan box, the third after a good piece of interplay with Denver Hume, and Wigan were, largely, chasing shadows. The problem, however, for the umpteenth time this season, was a lack of clear-cut chances and a predatory player to finish them.

After the initially bright start, the sting in the tail wasn’t long in coming. The ball broke loose at the edge of the Sunderland area, Bailey Wright wasn’t quick enough to clear the danger, and the impressive Kyle Joseph lashed a shot beyond Burge. Yet again, we were in a hole of our own making, and as someone sagely tweeted, it was time to sound the ‘Lee Johnson now knows the scale of the job’ klaxon.

The remainder of the first half was reasonably uneventful. McGeady lashed a shot high and wide when he might well have squared it, another shot from Scowen was tipped around the post, while Maguire blasted over after breaking into the box. It was a frustratingly familiar scenario, and it unfolded with utter predictability.

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

Forty-five minutes in, and the ‘new manager bounce’ was more of a ‘new manager stutter’. We needed to improve, and fast.

Unfortunately we didn’t, and the second half performance was a disgrace as Sunderland offered the square root of nothing in an attacking sense. A header from the generally ineffective Scowen was tipped over the bar, but as Wigan dug in and tried to make life difficult for us, we couldn’t summon anywhere near enough threat to trouble the away defence, and even the introductions of Jack Diamond and Elliot Embleton couldn’t make the difference.

Now that the fortunate penalty decisions of early season have dried up, Sunderland’s weaknesses are being brutally exposed on a weekly basis, and there is no hiding away from it. The cracks in the club are now fault lines, and they are continuing to grow.

It is difficult to deny the fact that this was, in essence, a Parkinson-esque performance, despite the presence of a new manager, and it is going to take time for Johnson to implement his style of play on a squad of players that are both out of form, and clearly playing with their confidence levels at a real low. Hopefully, Johnson will weed out the dead wood (we’ve got plenty of that, after all) and quickly establish who has the backbone for the fight, because that is what we are in, without a doubt.

A very bad start to the latest chapter in the ongoing saga that is Sunderland AFC. Automatic promotion? Forget it. The playoffs are, realistically, our best hope now, and even that looks to be less than certain. This squad needs dismantling and rebuilding, but with time not on Johnson’s side, he’s going to need to work some serious magic to haul this team back up towards the right end of the table.