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Time to reflect

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“Fans will demand that the Lads get back to their best form for the final eight games, even if they take place in the summer. We need this season finally to be one we reflect upon positively” writes Lars Knutsen.

Sunderland Unveil New Signing Bailey Wright Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

So we are without a game for some weeks into the future now, and what is there to do now but hunker down and be reflective. Coronavirus will soon mean we are banned from gathering in large groups outside our homes, so I predict that social media will become much more important as the days go by, especially for those who are “self-isolating”.

Speaking personally, I work for a Danish biotech company, based at the University of Aarhus. I am resident in the UK, and just made it back to a near-deserted Stansted Airport last night before the Danes, like Norway, closed their borders, at lunchtime on March 14th. Aarhus University was closed on March 12th, so now all the employees are working from home. As a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry, I have become used to this “modern” way of working, but others are hugely challenged by it.

So, back at home in rural Essex, it is time to reflect on Sunderland’s efforts in this 2019-20 League One season.

Like many Sunderland fans, I was pretty miserable at the close of last year. We beat Southend 1-0 on November 2nd and did not get the taste of 3 points again until our very significant 2-1 away win at Doncaster on December 29th. I spent the days after the horrible 0-0 Boxing Day home draw writing a pretty miserable piece for my then blog spot: “The Lars Word” on the now defunct www.salutsunderland.com.

Just as a summary, these were the main things I said at the time:

  • These last months have been desperate times to be a fan of Sunderland Football Club. However we got here the team is now close to its lowest position of all time.
  • No sign of how we are going to get out of this mess, with one of our best players, Aidan McGeady now ostracised and a concomitant social media revolt going on against the owners.
  • A terrible series of results, including nine games without a win in all competitions at the sounding of the final whistle on Boxing Day.
  • When Phil Parkinson joined us as manager we were 6th, in League One, which leads us to the question: Were the club’s owners too fast in pulling the plug on Jack Ross and his backroom staff? As Black Cats fan Joe Hughes tweeted – Ross “was two Wembley wins away from being a cult hero”.
  • Did Stewart Donald and the Board make the right appointment in Parkinson?
  • We seem to lack leadership on the pitch. Looking at last season’s team, those fighting for possession in the middle of the park and driving the team forward included Lee Cattermole and George Honeyman.
  • As I tweeted in shock on hearing the news of Cattermole leaving: “The beating heart of @SunderlandAFC just left - am very sad about that. No-one gave more for SAFC from 2009-19; the collective memory of highs/lows + 8 seasons in the world’s best league now gone. I hoped Catts would be a Kevin Ball and stay forever.” It is as if no team now fears us, and supporters feel that the midfield battle is often lost before it starts.
  • There has been no discernible new manager “bounce” under Parkinson, but what about his record? I have friends in Essex who worship the ground he walks on because of what he achieved for Colchester United in the third tier from early 2003 to mid-2006. He saved them relegation in the first season, stabilised the team and in 2005-6 they finished in second place, thereby gaining an unlikely promotion to the Championship, despite having the lowest average attendance of the division. He resigned in June 2006 heading for Hull with a year left to run on his contract.
  • The other side of the story is from a Bolton fan, on a fellow Sunderland supporter’s Christmas card: “Sunderland now have ‘Parky’ who we were glad to see the back of. He was loyal but his football was dire”.
  • To quote another media source, even after the Doncaster win: “In this wildly inconsistent and unpredictable league, it was not an afternoon that will change the view that significant change is needed at Sunderland. The malaise has been too significant and gone on for too long, the lack of identity in recruitment and performance too obvious. The lack of enterprise too frequent, and the inconsistency in individuals too frustrating”.
  • Sunderland AFC has been on a tightrope to some sort of oblivion, and we need the fans behind the team, otherwise our biggest asset is diminished.
Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

I then blamed our inhabiting the lower half of the third tier on two serious management mishaps: not keeping the gifted goalscorers Lewis Grabban and Josh Maja happy.

Strikers who regularly find the net are worth their weight in gold, and although Grabban was seen a morose presence in the Netflix documentary, he was an effective scorer with 12 goals in 2017-18, despite departing halfway through the season. Maja finished on 19 goals, even though he was sold in the winter 2019 transfer window.

How different our status could be now had our club management at the time sorted out Maja’s contract at the start of the 2018-19 season.

But after the win at Doncaster, much seemed to change for the better at the club, at least on the pitch. Two defeats in 16 games which featured 9 victories as well as 9 clean sheets changed the atmosphere at Sunderland, with Phil Parkinson close to achieving hero status, especially after the home destruction of both Lincoln and Wycombe with 3 goals being scored in the first half of each game.

Gooch re-emerged as a skilful and influential figure, Charlie Wyke who had appeared so awkward and lacking in confidence became a pest to opposing defences.

Most importantly, Parkinson had pulled off the master stroke of signing Bailey Wright, who seemed to thrive on clean sheets and provided the determination, leadership and skill that our defence needed.

Sunderland Unveil New Signing Bailey Wright Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The feeling of optimism at the Stadium of Light became tangible, and we hit the dizzy heights of 4th in League One after our 3-0 defeat of Bristol Rovers on February 22nd. Since then the team has struggled to dominate games, and some of the feel-good factor has subsided. We lie in 7th spot after two disappointing defeats and 4 games without a win, are just one point off third, but no longer have a game in hand. The is the only positive I can see from the enforced break that the Coronavirus pandemic may bring - getting Wright back to full fitness for our run-in.

Again, we find ourselves on a tightrope to some sort of oblivion. I have previously written when previewing the Wembley League One play-off I attended in May 2019: “A loss would mean that the promise shown this season will be wasted; who really wants another season in League One? There is a danger of a multi-season stay at this level, and that would be very tough on the team and its fans.”

We need to be promoted this season however it finally ends, and whatever the delay is that takes place. I can say I am mightily relieved that our Board have that £10M US-backed loan tucked away for times like this.

I know fans argue that Manchester City, Wolves, Southampton, Bournemouth and Burnley have all been at this level for a few seasons in the not too distant past, but nobody that really cares about the club wants the stay to be prolonged. Having said that, there are some good sides in League One, who perhaps scrap better than we do at times, but we need to leave this league ASAP.

Charlton, Barnsley and Luton make up the current bottom three in the Championship and they were the promoted sides from this league last season.

It is not an easy transition to make, as the league above us is highly competitive, but I do feel that if we had beaten Charlton at Wembley last May, the club would have been sold, and investment would have come in to drive the team forward.

Some of our players will thrive on this enforced Coronavirus-induced break, others will struggle. The test for our manager and his coaching team will be to keep fitness levels and morale up, partly by arranging appropriate closed door “friendly” games. Fans will demand that the Lads get back to their best form for the final eight games, even if they take place in the summer. We need this season finally to be one we reflect upon positively.