Isolate the problem and remove it
Sunderland’s 2018/2019 player of the season was Aiden McGeady, who almost single-handedly dragged Jack Ross’s one-dimensional side to promotion with a broken foot.
Who would have guessed that just six months or so later he’d be out of the squad entirely, training with the U23s team and looking for a move to another club?
Phil Parkinson showed serious balls when he isolated McGeady entirely in a bid to win over the dressing room. It was a serious power move that showed his players he wasn’t afraid to make tough decisions, and that he wasn’t going to let his players run the show behind the scenes. McGeady’s exile coincided with an improved run of form on the pitch, and since he departed on Deadline Day for Charlton Athletic we’ve seen the team kick on even further.
Other players have stepped out of the shadows in his absence. Jordan Willis, Max Power and Luke O’Nien appear to have shouldered the responsibility. Bailey Wright has offered a new voice, one of experience and integrity. Youngsters like Denver Hume and George Dobson have grown and nailed down their spots in the side.
This cannot be coincidence. It’s only natural that with the removal of some big characters - particularly ones that are noted as being deeply cynical, constantly questioning the ability and methods of the manager - comes an upturn in form, an improved team bond and the emergence of new, fresh leadership on and off the pitch.
Credit where it’s due - that’s on Parkinson.
The safe route would have been to mollycoddle McGeady, continue to do what Jack Ross did in building the side around him, and hope that we could get by relying on him to provide the goals we needed to win games. Instead, he decided the only way he could get this team to play to his tune was to make a huge statement. For that, he deserves praise.
One rather extreme way to weed out the shirkers in your squad is to effectively put them through a mini pre-season midway through the season.
Phil Parkinson identified in his interview during the recruitment process that this team was not fit enough. It was hardly a surprising admission, but it was a large reason behind why we struggled to really push on under Jack Ross at the start of the season, and perhaps even in the second half of last season.
He brought Nick Allamby in, a well-respected fitness coach who worked previously at Middlesbrough, and for Parkinson at a host of other clubs. Aside from playing three games a week, the players were really put through their paces on the training pitch and were made to do a lot more running and working on improving their fitness than they ever had under the previous manager.
Some players responded well to the methods, whilst others didn’t. I’d hazard that the players who didn’t buy into it are no longer with the club. Others, like Chris Maguire, took a conscious decision to knuckle down, shift some weight and better equip himself to be a real force in Sunderland’s team under the new manager.
We’ve obviously seen the benefits of our increased fitness since the turn of the year. We’re able to sustain our energy levels across the entirety of the 90 minutes. We’re seeing our players pick up less injuries, which means we’ve been able to pick largely the same eleven players for every game. We’re scoring goals early in games and, in some cases, blowing teams away completely before half time.
You have to put a lot of that down to the fact that our players are just much fitter, stronger and therefore sharper than they were at the start of the season - which is hardly surprising considering the fact we played only four games in pre-season, one of which was against South Shields.
New players are no different
All logic would point to the signing of new players, particularly from the league above, leading to a shake-up in the starting eleven almost immediately. Yet, despite the inclusion of Bailey Wright, none of the other players that Sunderland signed in January have been given a first team start. Some, in the case of Declan John, haven’t even made a matchday squad.
Now that might seem a little strange and nonsensical, and I can’t quite get my head around it too, but his decision to stick to his guns on his team selection is working. When we lost to Portsmouth many people expected there to be a shake-up in the team, yet Parkinson stuck by the players who had done so well before that game. And, to his credit, it has worked - we’ve won the last three and have conceded zero goals.
There are players I’d take out of the team - I think Kyle Lafferty and Declan John need a chance to show they’re better than Charlie Wyke and Denver Hume at some point - but ultimately if Parkinson keeps picking the same side, as I suspect he will on Saturday, then there’s really no arguing with his decision to do so as keeping a consistent side is clearly working.