I’ve been watching a show on Netflix, and it’s not the greatest but it does tackle an intriguing issue. A man who is Christ-like, both in appearance and demeanour, ’appears’ into our 21st-century world. Amazed and perpetuated by social media this character goes on to create great feats and acts that shock the world. What ensues is a tale whereby beneath the main narrative of the show, it reaches out to ask that if presented with evidence to the contrary, how many people would abandon their beliefs and how many would stand steadfast in the face of what appeared to be facts.
This is where we sit with Phil Parkinson.
If we cast our minds not too far back, an underwhelming appointment under a cloud of ambiguity did little to encourage anyone. A steady decline sharp followed - one that none of us care to be reminded of - as Sunderland slipped to an historic low. It was at this point - Boxing Day to be precise - that the Yuletide tradition of goodwill to all men was revoked as chants of ”we want Parky out” reverberated around the Roker End. At that point in time, as had occurred to Jack Ross months before, there seemed no way back for the manager.
Once the crowd goes, the gaffer usually follows.
Following on from this, what seems like a miracle has occurred. Whatever happened behind the scenes has worked and Parkinson, his staff and his players have all banded together to complete flip Sunderland’s fortunes in the subsequent month. An unexpected win away at Doncaster where even the most optimistic of fans feared the worst, has in fact become the catalyst for real change.
If you love stats and analytics, you can trawl through Sunderland's games in January to see just how much not only results but style has changed - shifts in formation, personnel and tactics have manifested themselves in a series of wins, a 7 game unbeaten spell, numerous clean sheets and a well-deserved manager of the month award (what more, Parkinson duly obliged to follow tradition by losing his following game - not to upset the apple cart too much one would presume) has seen Sunderland bounce from relegation form into genuine promotion contenders.
The question this raises is a simple one in essence: how many of us are willing to say we jumped the gun, or were too knee-jerk, or simply wrong? Ultimately this becomes a trickier notion to tackle given our precarious position in the league table, which makes it one people still aren’t willing to stake their claim towards. As my Mam would say, we’d have splinters in our arse from sitting on the fence so much.
In the face of the evidence, certainly for myself anyway, is that Parkinson now feels like the right man for the task at hand. Whilst investment in January was touted, it never felt truly forthcoming or at least not in a sense some would have imagined.
That isn’t to say investment never did occur - especially in the back room - as well as the fact that loans rarely come for free.
Where there was an investment was in Parkinson’s astute assembling of his backroom staff - fitness, strength and mentality have all seen remarkable changes in a relatively short period of time. When accompanied to results, it makes for impressive reading - thanks to my resident sessioner/statistician Michael, Sunderland have kept 7 clean sheets from a possible 8 and have conceded a mere 6 goals in 13 games. At home Sunderland are currently 13 points from a possible 15 at home in 2020.
Speaking as of now, Sunderland are in prime promotion form with the only fly in the ointment at this stage being the fact three other sides are firmly in the same vein of form. To make the argument for Parkinson (if one was needed) more concise is quite simple. Since Christmas, Parkinson has rectified his own issues and that of his predecessor and turned Sunderland into a promotion-chasing side.
So, the counter-argument. To start, it’s worth noting that a healthy dose of scepticism now is hard to come by and it certainly wouldn’t sit well with myself at this stage, but to be balanced we must progress. The only question marks that hover over Parkinson are seemingly arbitrary issues to that of 6 weeks or so ago. One concern as such is the timing of substitutions - often late on - seem to be more reactionary or ’too late’ in a game and whilst not normally an issue is smaller leagues, some are concerned this could lead to the burning out of players in a busy period. Yes, I’m really clutching at straws at this point.
Ultimately though, Parkinson will be judged by one final parameter and probably the only parameter that really matters - did he get Sunderland promoted? That in itself is a question that can only be answered when the last ball is kicked this season, so true judgement will come at such a point. Interestingly this season could well be defined by our low point - fail to go up and a large amount of the blame can be appropriated to Parkinson’s horrific start, get promoted and almost all the credit can be appropriated to the following months by which Parkinson not only rejuvenated his side but also redefined his own style. In a very binary way, Parkinson’s final judgement will only then be revealed.
At this point in time, it makes sense to admit where I stood on all of this myself.
As a fan, I was tremendously underwhelmed by Parkinson’s appointment - nothing unique there then. Like many, I was also left exacerbated at the form that followed. As the results steadily decline and performances waned, one matter perpetuated another until I was firmly ”Parkinson Out”. As has been mentioned, this wasn’t an unpopular mind set at the time, football at its core is an emotional experience so naturally emotive responses ensued and became the norm.
It was at this point a journalist I was talking to said to me: ”If Parkinson comes back from this, it’ll be a miracle”. Right now then, we may be witnessing our own little miracle and not for the first time on Wearside.
Parkinson now is undergoing a rebirth at Sunderland and growing exponentially into his role as manager of this wonderful club. For that, he should be praised as much as he was criticised in his early days, if not more so. Phil it seems, has stared down the barrel and backed himself when nobody else would and that takes bucket loads of courage. It’s not unique, not is it unheard of for opinions to change, that’s what learning is all about.
Maybe then, for those like myself who now believe in the face of the evidence, that we can all learn a little something from this episode - be it patience or just to be a little less reactionary.
So here’s to you Mr Parkinson - maybe I got this wrong, and for that I hold my hands up. The job isn’t done yet, there’s still a long way to go, but I feel that we aren’t far from hearing the Roker End chant ”Phil Parkinson’s red and white army”.
Six weeks ago that was an unimaginable feat.