So, the Lee Johnson era is over - another Sunderland manager departs having not fulfilled expectations, despite the 2021/2022 season still having some time to run.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s shambolic defeat to Bolton, Johnson’s expression as he conducted his post-match interview was that of a man who could scarcely believe what he had just witnessed. His eyes were lifeless and his answers lacked any real emotion. He sounded utterly perplexed as he tried to make sense of the ninety minutes’ worth of dross he had overseen, and it was impossible to ignore the lack of defiance and anger in his tone.
Perhaps this was inevitable.
After all, he of all people wouldn’t have expected his team to play so badly, not least after showing some good qualities during the previous game against Portsmouth. He would’ve doubtless expected them to use that result as a springboard towards another victory, but instead, he was left to sift through the wreckage of a thoroughly dispiriting afternoon for everyone connected with the club.
Granted, he was let down badly by his players against Bolton, but he was experienced enough to know that he is the first one in the firing line when things go wrong.
Saturday’s disaster, and some other away-day hammerings aside, it is safe to say that, under Johnson’s management, the club had experienced some real highs (the EFL trophy victory, superb wins over Cheltenham & Sheffield Wednesday this season) as well as some extremely poor days. His time as head coach has been a mixed bag, but ultimately we will never know where it would’ve led.
It isn’t unreasonable to say that Johnson’s quirky and& offbeat personality never found universal favour with Sunderland fans, ever since he breezed into the Stadium of Light just over a year ago.
Chosen out of left field, he seemed to be an odd and eye-catching choice as head coach, certainly as the club was going through a period of transition and upheaval. At the time, his credentials weren’t exactly eye-catching, but having tried and failed with another young up-and-comer in Jack Ross, and a supposed steady hand in Phil Parkinson, it made a decent amount of sense to opt for the wildcard option and to see whether he could be the one to deliver promotion.
After overseeing an ultimately doomed attempt at promotion via the playoffs during his first half-season at the helm many felt that he should’ve departed last summer, but he certainly deserved a chance to have another crack with his own squad.
As 2021/2022 unfolded, he oversaw some excellent results, as well as a handful of absolutely dreadful ones, which left him in a strange position of being in the job but often feeling like he wasn’t actually wanted.
It goes without saying that a good deal of the criticism Johnson received, a lot of which went way beyond his capability as manager, wasn’t fully merited, and, as this season unfolded, I often got a sense that he was left slightly bemused by some of the flak that was sent his way.
One thing that was absolutely certain about Johnson was that he tried his best, and that he did everything within his power to find the solution and to deliver what we all crave. He didn’t down tools and haul the white flag up the pole, and for that, he deserves credit.
Johnson should also be praised for his faith in youth, as well. The emergence of Dan Neil and the progress of Elliot Embleton are things of which he should rightly be proud. He gave them chances, and I’m sure he will be monitoring their progress over the next couple of years.
There is no doubt, however, that he is a flawed manager, with a lack of tactical flexibility and a frustrating habit of leaving in-game personnel & formation changes until it’s too late, and was often deserving of the football-related criticism that has been levelled at him.
Maybe this was simply a natural reaction.
For a generation of fans who grew up watching Sunderland being led by no-nonsense managers such as Peter Reid & Mick McCarthy, Johnson’s approach often felt like something from an entirely different coaching manual.
Whereas Reid and McCarthy would tell it like it was in the aftermath of games, often in brutally honest tones, Johnson is very much of the new school of thinking: keen on buzzwords and funky turns of phrase, eager to be liked and admired, and never short of a quip or two.
The problem is that none of these attributes have anything to do with successfully guiding Sunderland out of the third tier, which was Johnson’s only brief. He couldn’t change the way he spoke or the way he went about his business, but it was always going to grate when the head coach wilfully overlooked failings in order to try and make himself sound like some kind of managerial visionary.
As we all know, the modern game is a very different sport to how football looked when Reid and Bobby Saxton were rampaging around the Roker Park changing rooms, swearing like troopers and berating the players for not putting the effort in.
Managers nowadays have to be more than just mere managers. They have to be leaders, philosophers, diplomats, and coaches, and they face a level of scrutiny that seems to get more and more intense with every season.
Lee Johnson found this out in the hardest way possible, but at the same time, this is simply par for the course at Sunderland in 2022. Expectations are high and patience is limited, and whoever replaces him in the SOL dugout will find themselves dealing with it just as intensely, and I really hope that the club gets the decision right. Our season depends on it.