While my son and I were sat in the SOL waiting for kick off against Bristol Rovers, he asked me, “When was the last time things were this good?” He’s sixteen years old and the first of his four years of season ticket ownership started in the Moyes season. Against that backdrop, it’s easy to understand why he asked; he hasn’t known times this good. Clearly it’s all relative.
There are still a few who remain unconvinced by Parkinson. They point out that he has pretty much got us ‘back to where we were’ when he arrived. That was a time at which the infamous ‘underlying performance data’ on Ross was deemed not good and was the reason given for Ross’ removal.
I am told that when he arrived, he very quickly identified that there were two major problems: the first being that the squad was unfit and the second being the existence of disruptive influences on the training ground and in the changing rooms. We all now know the core of the latter problem, which has been effectively addressed, and the former problem has been well in hand since the arrival of Nick Allamby. Identifying and solving the problems was the solid managerial thing to do - and in hindsight it was quite clear that neither could be fully addressed and resolved overnight.
Under Jack Ross, Sunderland suffered from a perpetually changing line up and tactics that were painfully slow, predictable and too often just became ‘give it to McGeady and hope for the best’.
It wasn’t working; it was probably never going to work, but it seemed we were never going to change from that course. Phil Parkinson needed to do something different - he entered the club (without great fanfare) and began the process of assessing the squad. From that ongoing assessment, he identified a way we should be playing and began to plot a path to that end.
Just as the fitness and discipline problems could not be solved overnight, nor could the need to find a whole new way of playing. There was some experimentation required along the way. Some trial and error - and, as we all know, some bloody awful results.
Perhaps those results were inevitable. Perhaps they were the painful price that had to be paid to buy our way out of a world of painfully slow, labourious, passing build-up play with the occasional arbitrarily shoehorned dose of ‘give it to McGeady’, to the successful 3-4-3 world we’re in today? Maybe the necessary transition was being managed in the best way possible?
Now that transition seems to be complete, we can look at his game management. Some performances are better than others, but that will always be the case. Setting aside inevitable fluctuation in performances, I observe that we take a different approach depending on the opponent. Yes, we always start with 3-4-3, but sometimes, with that formation, we create little and grind out a result; other times we blow teams away. There are even games in which we overwhelm teams in one half and grind out the other. I’m not sure this is all entirely by accident, I believe a chunk of what is happening is situation-dependent game management from Parkinson.
It’s often been said of Parkinson that he knows League One - and he does. He is also very experienced as a manager more generally. What he has never done, though, is managed a club the size of Sunderland. It’s a job that brings with it inherent pressure and expectation, especially when we are percieved by many football fans from both within the club and from the outside looking in as two leagues lower than where we should truly be.
Yet throughout that awful period from October to Boxing Day, did we once see him crack? Did we see him doubt himself or his squad? Did he seem like a man lacking in confidence? Aside from picking the odd hole in his jumper during a press conference, I’d suggest not.
He has come into a broken club, identified the problems, fixed them (however painfully) and used his years of experience to manage games with great success. If Sunderland fail to get promoted this season, I cannot think of a manager better placed or equipped than Phil Parkinson to try again next season.
Every now and then, a manager and a club come together and forge a synergistic relationship. Right club - right man - right time. Maybe this is one of those occasions?