It’s just over a month and eight games since Sunderland won 4-0 at Crewe Alexandra in an “emphatic,” “ruthless” and “stunning” performance.
Not my words - these are just some of the headlines from the press reports which followed the game at Gresty Road on October 19.
Okay, it was perennial strugglers and development specialists Crewe, you might add, but we’d enjoyed our best start to a season in many a year, and had bounced back superbly from a freak 4-0 reverse in crazy weather at Portsmouth.
Despite another slip-up, the 1-0 home defeat against Charlton, the Lads recovered once again to dump Championship QPR out of the League Cup.
Indeed, as recently as October 26, Lee Johnson was the darling of the travelling red and white army, jigging with his players in front of our jubilant away supporters at Loftus Road.
Six games and four weeks later, Sunderland have won just once, last Saturday’s 2-0 home defeat of Ipswich, and currently sit sixth in the League One table.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Mine is that there is no need to press the panic button - there is no need for alarm. I feel as though any calls for Johnson to be relieved of his duties are premature, unjustified and uncalled for.
For a start, when everything seemed rosy in our garden a few weeks ago, Johnson himself declared that there would be bumps in the road. And he was right. We have indeed endured a bad run. It came out of the blue, but it has happened.
All teams, with the exception of Arsene Wenger’s invincible Arsenal side and one or two others, lose games and go through a period of poor form. It has always been part of football.
It could be argued that we’ve already stopped the rot. Yes, we dropped two points at Shrewsbury despite being a goal and a man up at half time, but we’ve still taken four points from six. Win on Saturday at Cambridge and that will be seven points from nine.
I just don’t see any real reason to be worried. We’ve had injuries in key positions and have struggled in recent games, but I saw enough on Tuesday night to feel comfortable about all things SAFC.
A few sloppy passes, some terrible crosses, and the conceding of a great goal after we failed to clear our lines – but there were plenty of positives with the performances of Bailey Wright, Alex Pritchard, Dan Neil, and Nathan Broadhead. We had good spells of possession and had Pritchard scored a second with a chance shortly after half time it would have been a different story. We still look generally like a good side with much more to offer in the games ahead.
We seem to have a happy camp. The players all seem to enjoy playing for Lee Johnson and clearly remain committed to the cause and his way of doing things.
Say what you like about his ‘philosophy’ and technical way of speaking, it must be the same footballing language as Kristjaan Speakman and Kyril Louis Dreyfus. It’s very much a structured approach at Sunderland, with Johnson not the manager but head coach – a key cog in the wheel.
Switching Johnson for another manager or head coach would upset the harmony of that management team. It might even show a chink in the armour. We’ve shown very much a united front under the new owner. If one man can be thrown out of the boat, what would that say about the security of the others?
In my view, it would be foolish to make any major structural changes after a few poor results – and again – four points from six is a sign that we’re already turning the corner.
Jack Ross was shown the door earlier in the season two years ago – when we were also sat in sixth place back in October 2019. It seemed like the right decision back then, with fears that Ross was on course to narrowly miss out on promotion for a second successive season.
But we didn’t go up anyway in 2019/20 (albeit with the pandemic playing its part), or in 2020/21. Both Phil Parkinson and Johnson himself, coming in part-way into a season, were unable to turn a supposedly unsatisfactory season into a successful promotion campaign.
Now there is a difference. This season, for the first time in many a year, we’re investing our focus on young players rather than going down the tried and tested route with seasoned pros and journeymen.
Lee Johnson is part of this new focus, this new era of academy progression and ambitious recruitment at Sunderland. His previous seasons here were under a different set-up, a different approach, which changed for the better last summer.
Now he has his own team. He has a squad full of quality, young, ambitious footballers, several of whom are not previously tested at this level. Therefore, there are no guarantees, but there are never any certainties in football. This is a calculated approach by our men at the top, and one we must back to the hilt. Simply buying League One experience has not worked in the past, and can never be a long term, ambitious approach.
I enjoy watching this team. I enjoy having Lee Johnson as our manager and I see the enormous potential we have to develop together. We’re a work in progress, but there’s nothing broken, so there’s no need to fix or change anything. After all, we’re in a strong position in the league and have a cup quarter final against Arsenal to look forward to!