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Barnesy’s Blog: “The season is underway... but not as we know it!”

In his latest blog for Roker Report, BBC Newcastle’s Nick Barnes discusses the beginning of a strange season, Sunderland’s decent start and the questions fans demanded he ask manager Phil Parkinson!

Barnsey’s Blog 20/21 Danny Roberts

This week it’s the Autumn equinox and the words of Ray Davies’ ‘Autumn Almanac’ come to mind... “I like my football on a Saturday. Roast beef on Sundays, all right I go to Blackpool for my holidays. Sit in the open sunlight”.

We all like our football on a Saturday and I daresay most of us love a Sunday roast, but now we sit here wondering when we’re going to get to the football again on a Saturday, or any day soon, and where we can enjoy a Sunday roast without sitting half a mile away from friends and family behind a plastic screen.

The season is underway, but not as we know it. As I write there is speculation the National League may be abandoned for lack of resources. There has also been much talk of EFL clubs struggling to get through November, let alone December and the New Year if there are no fans in the stadiums. It’s all but certain now that fans won’t be back in lower numbers as planned for at least the next three months if not six.

The ramifications are widespread, from staffing to dare I say, the takeover of the football club, which must now have a question mark over it. The prospect of buying a football club which will generate very little income for the foreseeable future is not an economic winner. One can only hope the earlier talks which covered the coronavirus issues factored this exceptional and extraordinary situation.

Blackburn Rovers v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship
“There has also been much talk of EFL clubs struggling to get through November” writes Nick Barnes
Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images

Suddenly as an air of normality was starting to creep back into our lives, we are thrust back into the dystopian world of the lockdown. I arrive at work to find emails addressing me in BIG BOLD RED letters urging me to only come into work if it is BROADCAST CRITICAL.

Football is critical to the mental well-being of many thousands, nay millions, of fans across the country and to that end one can only hope that now the protocols have been introduced and appear to be working well, football will continue, albeit behind closed doors.

The thought of this season being abandoned when it has barely begun is unthinkable. Of course, it is not ideal for fans but at least there is a mechanism available to watch and listen to the matches. We are all adjusting to these new ways of devouring the national game and once again our appetite for debate and argument is returning.

The void we felt in March, April and May is being filled again and the airwaves hum to the rhythm of harmonious disharmony.

At Oxford United the team was announced, and social media dissolved into a fudge of discontentment. I was urged to demand of Phil Parkinson why he played Grant Leadbitter... Why he dropped Will Grigg... Urged to ask him if he knows anything about football. At 4.50pm the silence was deafening. Instead, it was replaced by a begrudging mumble of content. Sunderland had won 2-0, and they could have won by more.

Oxford United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Grant Leadbitter in action during Sunderland’s 2-0 victory at Oxford United
Photo by Leila Coker/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Phil Parkinson answered why he’d played Grant Leadbitter and Danny Graham. It worked to a degree. Yes the jury is still out when it comes to who should be playing up front and what the formation should be. That debate will rage forever. Not just at Sunderland but at every club across the country.

We are two matches into what one fervently hopes is a forty-six match season. An early fumble against Bristol Rovers by Lee Burge defined the way the game would unfold and it wasn’t for a lack of chances that Sunderland failed to beat the West Country team.

Phil Parkinson admitted the final third needed addressing. A clinical ruthlessness needing to be injected into the front line. In the end it was provided by the excellent Luke O’Nien and a moment of brilliance from Lynden Gooch. It could have been more, but at the moment the quartet of Wyke, Grigg, Graham and O’Brien are looking more hapless than happy.

At least though the formation with Max Power playing in a more forward role and the wing backs pushing on is affording Sunderland opportunities and one hopes in the coming weeks one of those four grabs their opportunity. Rotating the strikers from week to week doesn’t to my mind seem to be the ideal way to solve a goal scoring dilemma.

Oxford United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
“At least though the formation with Max Power playing in a more forward role and the wing backs pushing on is affording Sunderland opportunities” writes Nick Barnes
Photo by Leila Coker/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Four points from six though and Sunderland are fifth after two games. It’s where they have to be, in the top six, because the fear of another season being decided by ‘points per game’ is one to fear and not without substance in these trying times.

So to encapsulate where we are now as the equinox slips behind us, I think things are looking fairly optimistic. The shape of the team seems to be more attacking and while Lee Burge may not at the moment be instilling everyone with confidence it’s hard to see Phil Parkinson making a switch so early and denting a confidence that needs all the boosting it can get at the moment.

At least in front of him he has three centre halves who appear to be building a good understanding. Bailey Wright was outstanding at Oxford, and we know what Jordan Willis has to offer. Tom Flanagan when he’s on his game is as good as most at this level and complements Wright and Willis. Fingers crossed they can all stay fit.

The midfield is where most debate is being generated with Josh Scowen seemingly central to much of the talk. He may well start against Peterborough if Power’s hamstring remains tight and if he does Leadbitter proved at Oxford he can do a job in the defensive role that suits him and allow Scowen to roam up front. Scowen has a scent for goal too which could be critical in the long run.

Oxford United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Could Josh Scowen get the nod against Peterborough United if Max Power is ruled out?
Photo by Leila Coker/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The promise of Elliot Embleton, Jack Diamond and Dan Neil has also to be factored in. They will get their opportunities and it will be up to them to grab them with both hands and as Lynden Gooch proved at Oxford, the depth of the squad now means the bench can be impactful. Hopefully soon the likes of Diamond and Neil will be warming it alongside him.

The bottom line though is we are only two matches in and remain undefeated, with no goal conceded so far from open play. There seems to be a good team spirit and a grim determination to attain the season’s goal of promotion.

Phil Parkinson carries an air of resolution with a dogmatism which remains stoic and determined. He may not be to everyone’s taste but in the face of trying times, on and off the pitch, he has the experience and wherewithal to see the job through. The last thing the club needs is another change of manager early in the season as last season surely proved.

We are all adapting to the weirdness of playing in empty grounds and it will only be a matter of time before it feels the norm, as strange and surreal as that may seem.

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