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To stick or to twist: That is the question, just not the one we’re used to thinking it is

In the post-manager era at SAFC, transformative change will have to go a lot further and risk a whole lot more than merely the personnel in the match-day dugout.

Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

To paraphrase Tolstoy:

“All happy clubs are alike - each unhappy club is unhappy in its own way.”

The happy clubs are easily identifiable, not solely by their position in their respective league tables, but by the expectations they are continually surpassing, the quality of the football being played, and by the promise of further success on an undeniably upward trajectory.

Unhappy clubs are far more complex: weighed down by their own unique recent past, divided on their diagnosis of whatever their present predicament is perceived to be, as well as the potential remedies for the future, and situated in their own regional rivalries and resentments.

Although Sunderland couldn’t claim to be a fully paid-up member of the happy club at the start of the season, the speed with which we’ve descended into the dysfunctional, unhappy sort has been equal parts bemusing and depressing.

Being rivals of the nouveau riche-st club in the world hasn’t helped but much of our descent into acrimony reflects a repeating pattern, over the past 10 years, whereby the fear of not achieving the seemingly sole purpose of our season, be it survival or promotion, prompts frantic calls for remedial action.

The particulars differ, but the pattern doesn’t.

In the Premier League, whichever manager achieved survival began the next season with a high degree of goodwill whereas League One managers who failed to secure promotion began each season with an ever-tightening noose around their neck.

However, their dismissal became inevitable when failure to achieve the season’s primary goal began to be written in the stars.

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

In this way, Sunderland fans have become prisoners of their own recent history, with the fetishisation and demonisation of managers being their sole means of marking the passing of time before eventual freedom. The irony is that this approach has hardly worked wonders for us in the past. Moreover, it’s a particularly fruitless approach now that Sunderland are embarking on what is, essentially, a post-manager era.

The calls for a change of manager in the Premier League days lacked long-term logic, but it at least succeeded in the immediate aim of avoiding relegation.

Whether replacing Moyes would have repeated the trick is a moot point, as the whole cycle was unsustainable as a business model and left fans in a short-term limbo with no long-term vision to sustain genuine hope.

Things are a little different now. The option of bringing in a fresh, charismatic leader to inspire the troops, inject fresh blood into the squad through a well-backed transfer window and stamp his own unique mark on our style of play just isn’t there anymore.

The fetishisation of the manager-saviour really ought to have died a death with the appointment of Parky but it seems to be an inescapable part of our DNA, reinforced by memories of Reid, Keane and Allardyce.

These were all big personalities who ‘got’ the club and, for better or worse, could mould it and their team in their own image. The belief and blind hope that there’s another saviour in the wings is difficult to shake off when the transformative effects of a newly installed ‘big character’ manager remains relatively fresh in the memory.

Sunderland Pre-Season Training Camp - Day 2 Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Yet even if such a character was open to a move to a League One club with a trigger-finger history of changing managers, they still wouldn’t be able to alter the club’s direction of travel. The current thinking marks a seismic shift away from placing faith in an individual manager’s force of personality to effect long-term change.

Instead, systemic, institutional change is the order of the day.

Managers may come and go but, essentially, they are now servants of the current long-term project. This dictates that a distinctive style of play and an attempt at a more sustainable business model takes precedence over pandering to the whim of personalities, be they players, managers or fellow shareholders.

It’s understandable that some fans are calling for a change of manager as the early promise of this season has hit the buffers of the harsh realities of a League One campaign pursued with promising but unproven talent and with eyes on a prize larger and more long-term than mere promotion.

It’s what we’ve done in the past and it’s worked before, just not in League One. To demand such change now, though, seems to be both too short-sighted and far too limited.

Judging Johnson’s ability to succeed at the club is as premature as it is to judge the ability of the likes of Embleton, Neil, Dajaku, Hoffman, Cirkin and Huggins to succeed.

Any new manager, forced to rely on the same raw talent in accordance with the club’s direction, would experience the same occasional embarrassment of heavy defeats against League One rivals. If this is ‘unacceptable’, rather than a tough-to-take but inevitable price to be paid for placing faith in nurturing young talent, then calls for Johnson’s head are far too limited in their revolutionary intentions.

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

If there’s no patience or faith in the long-term approach, only 4 months into the first season of a project that will take many a year to fully blossom, then the calls for change ought to be far more ambitious.

Such calls should focus on abandoning root-and-branch reform of the club, instead prioritising short-term investment in the men’s first team squad to the exclusion of all else including Sunderland Ladies and the Academy.

What this means in practice would be a Wigan or Ipswich model, not too dissimilar from our own failed models in the past, and the almost certain withdrawal of involvement in the club of Speakman, KLD and his various appointments.

Although I don’t share their thinking, I’m sure some would welcome such a scenario but by making Johnson the principal focus of their ire they’re being dishonest with themselves and far too timid in their demands for change.

The stick or twist dilemma isn’t about whether to twist over another demonised manager but to twist over the club’s newly embarked upon direction of travel.

Alternatively, to stick doesn’t equate to an acceptance of mediocrity but a hope and belief, whether misguided or not only a lot more time will tell, that an alternative approach to our recent past is worth persevering with.

Johnson is a minor actor in all this.

In the post-manager era at SAFC, transformative change will have to go a lot further and risk a whole lot more than merely the personnel in the match-day dugout.


Pause for thought


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