Cards on the table - I didn’t want Phil Parkinson as Sunderland manager. When he was appointed to replace Jack Ross last October, I was far from impressed.
A typical League One appointment. An unambitious appointment. An appointment that shouted from the rooftops ‘We’re a League One Club!’, despite whatever references he came with.
And 14 games into his reign, I felt I had – unfortunately – been proven correct. Let’s make no bones about this, his appointment cost us promotion last season. That run of 9 points from his first 9 league games gave us an average of a point per game. Take those games out of the equation and we were running at 1.85 points per game, which would have had us finishing comfortably ahead of second-placed Rotherham’s 1.77 points per game.
However, that’s in the past. And with a new season about to begin, there are a number of reasons I’m feeling pretty confident that Parkinson could be the man to lead us back into the Championship*.
He’s had a prolonged pre-season
Since the season was curtailed in March, he’s had the opportunity to analyse last season’s games in detail, scrutinise the opposition and really get to grips with what the team needs to get out of League One. Of course, this isn’t unique to us, however we should take confidence that he’s had this period to focus on the needs of the team. For Sunderland, having a manager fully focused for the whole of pre-season, to enable detailed preparation and consideration, is something that’s not happened for a while. Last summer, Jack Ross was reeling from disappointment, was under prepared and distracted thanks to ownership uncertainty, and was entirely sure he wanted to be here regardless.
The four summers before that were blighted by uncertainty – Ross was appointed mid-summer, as were Grayson and Moyes the summers before. Advocaat didn’t really want the job and did an emotional U-turn, while the summer before that Poyet – was left frustrated by interference from Lee Congerton. Di Canio was, well, Di Canio. Paolo and stability don’t go together.
In reality, despite the global uncertainty, it’s probably the most stable build up we’ve had to a new season since the days of Martin O’Neill. And that’s got to be a positive.
He’s used to managing clubs in turmoil
While the ownership uncertainty rumbles on for the 16th or 17th month (given their tenure has been 28 months it’s an impressive feat), Parkinson at least will be unfazed. He’s experienced this and much, much worse before, and it’ll be inconsequential to him. He knows that if and when new owners come in, if he’s going a good job he’ll stay.
While Jack Ross seemed to crumble under the weight of uncertainty last season, Parkinson’s experience in unstable football clubs could play dividends. I’m sure the instability at the end of last year played a role in him keeping his job, so you could say it has already reaped some reward.
Formation and style of play
Managers often get labelled based on lazy assumptions. Allardyce is a long ball merchant, for example. The same with Parkinson. The style of play he’s implemented seems to suit us. It’s certainly not meaningless tika-taka possession, but it’s far from long ball either.
In patches last season we saw an urgency in and out of possession that we’d seen only fleetingly since the Keane days – and as a crowd we respond well to that.
Formation-wise, we’ve seen countless managers experiment with a back three and quickly retreat, Jack Ross at the start of last season introduced the most under-baked system change we’ve witnessed, while Coleman was another who tried and failed to make it work.
Parkinson’s version – I’d call it 3-4-3 – has given us a real identifiable system of play, a purpose. It’s clear what we’re trying to do – and it’s not been possible to say that since Big Sam left.
He’s also shown a variation in pre-season, a Plan B that was lacking last time out, with two strikers playing with one behind, and the option of switching that to a target man leading the line.
Fitness wise, the improvement weeks after Nick Allamby’s arrival was impressive, and with a pre-season in the players’ we will hopefully notice even more of a difference in their ability to push and press to the last.
He’s brought in the right characters
From Didier Ndong to James Vaughan, our plummet through the leagues has been characterised by, well, the wrong type of character. People who don’t give a toss what happens to us, as long as they pick up their wages.
The list is endless.
There’s a myth the Sunderland crowd are too demanding, too hard to play in front of for these delicate souls. It’s nonsense. The Sunderland crowd is easy to play in front of because all you need to give them is everything. You need a level of skill relevant for the division you’re in, of course, that’s a prerequisite. But if you care even half as much as the fans do, and try as if it means the world to you, you’ll be fine.
So, it’s pleasing to see the likes of Bailey Wright, Danny Graham, Aiden O’Brien and Morgan Feeney arrive at the club; all players of whom fans of their former clubs, ex-team-mates and ex-managers talk highly of in terms of their character.
This season won’t be easy, but with the right characters in the squad we’ve got more than a fighting chance.
Change in transfer policy
From the outside looking in, I feared Parkinson would sign a host of ex-Bolton players he’d worked with before. And while Danny Graham may be a ‘Parkinson signing’ in terms of mould (indeed he mentioned on the club podcast Parkinson had tried to sign him for Bolton) the likes of Xhemajli and the recently-linked Bajamich suggest a willingness to broaden horizons.
The reality is, we’ll likely need a nice mix of ‘old-school’ and ‘Moneyball’ signings to succeed in the future, whatever division we’re in.
Strength in depth
We’ve also assembled quite a decent squad, as Tuesday’s demolition of Villa’s under-21s demonstrated.
With good cover in the centre of the pitch – defence, midfield and attack – it’s only in the wing back areas and in goal where there’s a question mark on the current staff’s ability to successfully guide us through the season.
And with the transfer window still open for a few weeks yet, it’s likely those issues will be rectified before long.
He’s not afraid of big calls
The extrication of Aiden McGeady – comfortably our best player the season before last – demonstrates firmly that Parkinson’s not going to back away from the big calls. It’s all about the team, the group, and getting the best out of them on, and off, the field.
He’s also demonstrated a high-level of man management. When Will Grigg wasn’t too complementary about Parkinson’s tactics, you expected that to be the end of the line for the former Wigan man. Instead, he’s returned sharper than ever, and determined to play a part.
Of course, it’s in Grigg’s long-term interests to be in that condition, and Parkinson’s interests to play him as he’s the striker with the best track record we have – and we’re not shifting him without paying a huge chunk of his salary.
Regardless, if it had been Peter Reid or Roy Keane, for example, you know Grigg would have joined McGeady in after-hours training.
Positivity and new-season optimism aside, there are still some lingering doubts. In the wing back positions, as noted, we need reinforcement. I’m sure they’ll come. We also look light in goal, and this is the major concern I have squad-wise this season. Matthews has failed to impress, while Burge couldn’t dislodge an out-of-form McLaughlin under two managers. I’d be surprised if another keeper arrived.
Of concern, too, is Parkinson’s reluctance to rotate his squad. We witnessed unchanged team after unchanged team last season, and it caught up with us. We’ve got a deep-ish squad, so please make use of it. It wasn’t an anomaly that he took that approach with us last year, he has a track record for doing it. Fingers crossed he’s more willing to make use of the full squad – because if he does, we should go up.
* I reserve all rights to completely change my mind by the end of September.