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Phil Parkinson’s Catch-22: Is the Sunderland manager up to the task going forward?

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“Parkinson’s demeanour during the interview did not strike me as that of a man who is relishing the challenge of a third slog through League One” writes Phil West. Is the Sunderland boss up to the task?

Oxford United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

One of the most common occurrences during the coronavirus pandemic has been the sight of athletes and coaches being interviewed from the comfort of their own home. Many of these interviews have been fascinating, as we’ve gotten to hear a slightly more candid, open side of them, and it’s offered an insight into how they’ve adapted to lockdown and how they’ve been preparing for the return of sport.

Last week, it was Phil Parkinson’s turn to face the camera, in the wake of the messy and less-than-agreeable conclusion to the League One season. No jam-packed bookshelves or psychedelic posters, just the man himself, facing questions from Frankie Francis and interspersed with contributions from Danny Collins. Fairly standard stuff, and it did give us an insight into his thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the abrupt end to the season.

Now, perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but Parkinson’s demeanour during the interview did not strike me as that of a man who is relishing the challenge of a third slog through League One. He spoke well, didn’t try to make excuses for why we ultimately fell short, and diplomatically avoided highlighting key moments during the season that cost us, although I have a sneaking suspicion that phrases such as ‘Mikael Mandron’, and ‘we absolutely bottled it at Bristol and Coventry’, were on the tip of his tongue.

Coventry City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images

After watching the interview a couple of times, I do have slight misgivings about Parkinson’s determination to dig in and steer the club through these troubled times. This could well be the most prestigious, and maybe the last ‘big’ job of Parkinson’s managerial career, and if he were to hold firm, learn from the mistakes of last season, and lead Sunderland to promotion, that would be a very positive note on which to end.

On the other hand, perhaps he was just playing his cards close to his chest, and what I interpreted as uncertainty could well have been the sight of a man deep in thought, already casting his thoughts ahead to the summer. If he is determined not to get bogged down in the bitterness and rancour that has engulfed the EFL recently, that is admirable. Whether he truly believes we could’ve made a last-gasp push for promotion, we’ll never know, but if he is moving on swiftly, that’s a positive. After all, he lost the 2013 League Cup final 5-0, so absorbing thunderous punches isn’t alien to Parkinson, but in that game, he was managing the underdogs. At Sunderland, expectations are much greater, and justifiably so.

On Twitter last week, I suggested that meek or weak-minded managers are almost always doomed to failure at Sunderland. To that end, we will discover a lot more about Parkinson’s personality this summer. With the future of the bulk of the first-team squad shrouded in uncertainty (as I write, Kyle Lafferty has already departed, and you suspect there’ll be more to follow) and seemingly little in the way of financial clout to improve the team, it’s going to be asking an awful lot to construct a team capable of escaping this division at the third time of asking.

Will he get the players he feels he needs? Will he have much of a say in who arrives, or will he find himself with little control? Parkinson has shown no signs of upsetting the apple cart during his tenure so far, but conversely, our recruitment team have seldom, if ever, shown signs of being able to attract players of the required calibre. If Parkinson feels as though the rug is being pulled put from under him, would you blame him for walking away?

Assuming Parkinson stays, there is no doubt that he faces an infinitely more arduous challenge than Jack Ross did in the summer of 2019. The goodwill and optimism of eighteen months ago has drained away, and Parkinson, during his relatively short time here, has found himself under the microscope to a greater degree than at any time in his managerial career. If he is still in the dugout come the autumn, he’ll have to summon all of that experience and know-how, garnered from a significant amount of time spent at this level, in order to keep things under control, and the doubters at bay.