The majority of Sunderland seasons in recent times have featured some kind of downturn in form, and there is no doubt that we have reached that point in 2021/2022, as another international break looms large.
Fourteen days ago, we progressed to the quarter-finals of the League Cup, a result that hinted that the preceding game against Charlton might have been a blip. However, a 5-1 walloping away at Rotherham in the next league game was followed by an equally galling 3-0 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday to make it a miserable Yorkshire double-header.
To make matters worse, we exited the FA Cup in limp fashion against Mansfield on Saturday, the second time in two seasons we have been sent packing by the Stags. Terrible performance, dreadful result.
On Tuesday night, things got stranger, as we drew with Bradford at the end of ninety minutes, after a well-taken goal from Nathan Broadhead, only to ‘lose’ the game after a bizarre and pointless penalty shootout. It was a perfectly surreal way to wrap up a turbulent quartet of matches.
Naturally, as things have gone wrong on the pitch, the criticism of Lee Johnson has become more visceral and at times, it has felt uncannily similar to the kind of flak that Jack Ross was receiving in the dying embers of his reign as manager.
Instead of enjoying broad backing, Johnson now finds himself increasingly being portrayed as a bumbling, inept fool, and not a serious football manager. Everything about him seems fair game for criticism, including, bizarrely, his height.
In addition, many fans have been taking part in a game of ‘Pick Your Next Sunderland Manager’ on Twitter, an exercise that has thrown up such names as Neil Warnock, Dean Smith, and of course, everyone’s favourite, Roy Keane, who continues to attract admiring glances towards his cushy position in the Sky Sports punditry chair.
None of this is particularly unexpected.
As Sunderland fans, we often dream of the magic solution when things take a turn for the worse, and the notion that a Keane-like messiah will come and save us is obviously very tantalising when you’re being steamrollered in the league & bundled out of the FA Cup by a League Two team.
Nevertheless, all of this feels somewhat academic.
Even if Johnson were to depart (which I don’t see happening yet, bar a hammering at the hands of Ipswich) the last thing we need is nostalgia-driven pining for the likes of Keane (as great & inspirational as he was between 2006 and the summer of 2008).
In 2021, it is far too simplistic to target the ‘kick-up-the-backside’ type of coach, not least because the game has changed markedly from Keane’s spell as Sunderland boss. In 2006/07, Keane had a squad filled with seasoned, hard-bitten pros, and everything eventually clicked. Trying to recapture that would be a retrograde step, without a doubt.
As we navigate our way through this turbulent period, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Kristjaan Speakman & Kyril Louis-Dreyfus are determined to break the cycle of hiring & firing that we have been locked into since 2018. The summer overhaul and the transition to a younger squad was the first step in that process, and hopefully, promotion will be the second.
The notion of a ‘philosophy’ and an ‘identity’ might be ripe for mockery at times, but given the choice between our current template, and the scattergun approach that saw the likes of Joel Lynch, Laurens de Bock, and Danny Graham (for the second time) arrive on Wearside, I know which option I’d choose. The foundations are there, and now they must be built on.
Returning to Lee Johnson, it goes without saying that, on occasions, he hasn’t helped himself. His post-match interview following the defeat at Sheffield Wednesday was at best optimistic and at worst, downright out-of-touch. He clearly has a penchant for philosophical musings, but there is a time for some honesty as well.
He isn’t going to morph into a Mick McCarthy-like straight talker, but some harsh self-analysis never goes amiss. Johnson, like the players, must carry his share of the burden, and inwardly, he’ll certainly be asking himself what he can do differently.
On the other hand, Johnson’s post-Mansfield comments, which touched on the sensitive issues of fan expectations, the stature of the club, and the minefield of social media, were valid, even if they did kick-start a discussion about whether he was blaming the fans, which he emphatically was not.
It was obvious that his plea was for patience from the fans, as well as highlighting that this young group of players must learn to rise to the challenge of succeeding in the red and white stripes.
Frankly, it feels as though Johnson is slightly punch-drunk at the moment, and has been taken aback by the speed & severity of our slump. Assuming he remains in charge for the next league game,
As for the players, it is abundantly clear that their confidence is on the floor, and they are playing with frayed nerves and fogged minds. However, this doesn’t mean that they are now incapable of delivering promotion, nor does it mean that our summer transfer business was sub-standard.
If we cast our minds back to mid-September, Callum Doyle was an England international in waiting, Thorben Hoffmann was the quality goalkeeper we’d all been praying for, and Tom Flanagan was a player reborn.
Now, after a bad run of form, the same players are ‘too inexperienced’, ‘too lightweight’, and apparently not up to the task. Perhaps this simply highlights how on edge we are as a fan base: players can veer from hero to villain status in no time at all.
The simple fact is that many of these players are finding their way in the professional game, having been plunged into the dogfight of L1, and dips in form are simply part of the deal.
Johnson clearly has faith in their ability (think back to his reaction to Dan Neil scoring against Accrington, and how genuinely proud he sounded), and patience is the only workable solution.
It has been a wretched fortnight for everyone connected with the club, but the situation is not irretrievable. Our next league opponents, Ipswich, endured a terrible start and are now on a superb run, which shows how quickly fortunes can change in League One.
When Paul Cook brings his team to the Stadium of Light in eleven days’ time, hopefully the situation will be calmer and we can go about rebuilding what is still a very viable promotion challenge.