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Lee Johnson’s Sunderland need a cultural revolution

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“This club has a long and proud history – it feels like that is all it has – but history will not judge this lot well if they don’t pull their finger out”, writes David Hollloway.

Northampton Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images

The last 12 months has been an extremely difficult time for everybody, so writing about the frustrations of watching a football team in League One does feel a little bit trivial in the midst of a global health crisis. However, this Sunderland team is the most difficult and frustrating watch in my 40-odd-year sentence as a fan of this once proud football club.

It may be one of the effects of lockdown, but paying ten quid to watch Sunderland on a laptop with one camera angle and questionable replays and commentary remains one of the few indulgences that we are able to continue to enjoy.

I doubt that any of us will get used to not being able to watch the lads live, and we all miss having a few pints before and after - sharing the enjoyment of the wins and suffering the pain of a disappointing defeat. Maybe that exacerbates the frustrations of this season, which already seems to have gone on forever.

I am sure that I am not alone in convincing myself that this will be the week that this squad of players will rise to the challenge of performing as a we expect a Sunderland side to do. Every so often there is a glimpse – Lincoln away and parts of Wimbledon away on Saturday being prime examples - but every time a ray of light is lit, it is immediately extinguished - as it was on Tuesday night against Plymouth Argyle.

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

Lee Johnson has a tough job on his hands. The squad remain an unbalanced rag tag of a group of players who have been thrown together with seemingly little thought or planning as to how they will be utilised. But we do have some very good players for this level, we have more than a few.

Johnson quite rightly identified certain deficiencies in “culture” after the Plymouth game. We know that Johnson has his own way of communicating, and I expect that this will lead to frustrations down the line. Personally, I prefer a straight talker who uses easily understood and commonly used terminology - but his reference to culture on Tuesday made plenty of sense.

I don’t think that the work rate is under serious question, but the mistakes, the silly mistakes which have proved so costly season continue – the lack of mental strength to see games out – to capitalise when we are on top - to take care over the final pass or finish are all too regular an occurrence.

Does this indicate a lack of care? Are certain players taking the easy way out? Is it just what League One footballers are like?

I look at our squad and I watch us match up against almost every other opposing team. I see better footballers playing for Sunderland than for the opposition. I see players who have played at a higher level and players who have or should have ambitions to play at a higher level. However, the sum of the parts is less than the whole. It is the managers job to fix that, but how many have failed? We can go back over a succession of sacked managers at this club in the last few years and see that none of them have created a recognisable first team.

It is not disputed that we have the biggest budget in the league by far. You can form your own judgement as to whether the players are deserving of their rewards, but I still feel that we should be performing so much better than we are, Johnson’s comments indicates that a few games in he feels the same.

The weaknesses, for example the lack of power and pace are well documented, we all know that. But that is just part of the story. I believe that the bigger part is that for whatever reason this group of players just aren’t, as a collective performing to their capability. They aren’t doing everything that they can to get this club out of this division.

Sunderland v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet League 1
A lack of power or a poor dressing room culture: what lies at the heart of Sunderland’s underperformance?
Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It may be that with so many players out of contract in the summer that too many no longer care. They should, they will never have it better. It may be that playing in an empty stadium is having a greater impact than we realise. It may be that the culture within the dressing room isn’t ideal. It is likely a bit of all of that.

Whatever it is, this group need to look at themselves in the mirror. Whilst promotion is now a long shot, it is not impossible. Will they take the opportunity that is staring them in the face and rise to meet it or will they continue to languish in their shells and continue to underperform?

This club has a long and proud history – it feels like that is all it has at the moment – but history will not judge this lot well if, as they used to say, they don’t pull their finger out and take responsibility for the future of the football club and ultimately their own professional pride, ambitions and careers.

It is not just up to Johnson to correct the failings in culture and bring back the spirit that was evident in the past promotion teams, the players need to take responsibility. History judged those past promotion winning players very well, they didn’t shrink and many performed at their peak capability week in week out - it is beyond me why this lot are too happy to go through the motions.