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Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Editorial: The inevitable changing of the guard strikes again at Sunderland

You can almost set your watch by Sunderland sacking managers - and the writing was maybe always on the wall for Lee Johnson.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

It’s a clear sign of the times that we’re looking for our sixth manager in roughly four and a half years. It’s also telling that since Steve Bruce left the club just over 10 years ago, the average tenure of a manager at the Stadium of Light is just under 11 months.

This one however, was different. Very rarely do we discuss sacking a manager who in the previous calendar year had amassed the most points in the EFL and won a trophy - but did anyone really expect Lee Johnson to see out the season?

Going back around 13 months to December 2020 when Phil Parkinson was relieved of his duties, I was pretty underwhelmed at the announcement of Lee Johnson as manager.

The more I looked at the logic behind it, and the more I reminded myself we were heading for mid-table mediocrity in League One at the time, the more it made sense. But the appointment hardly got the blood pumping.

But as he got us in the mix for automatic promotion and won the Papa John’s in an empty Wembley, it was looking like he could potentially be the one to get us out of the mess that is the third tier. And then it went a bit wrong.

The run of one win in the final nine games of last season was unforgivable for a section of the fanbase, and he arguably never fully recovered. From that point on there was a clear split on the terraces.

We went into this season a divided club, mainly down to the fact not everyone felt they could back Lee Johnson. It would take something special for LJ to knit everyone together. The general consensus was that we would need to get off to a great start to the season for the ex-Bristol City manager to keep his job.

But even when we won seven of the first nine and were top of the table, there were still grumblings and it was maybe obvious even then, that whatever happened, Lee Johnson was not the man to galvanise the club and bring the fans fully back onboard.

Within just four and half weeks of going top of the league, we’d lost by three or four goals in three out of six games and the pendulum swung back with increased calls for a change of manager. Then a decent run over the festive period followed, and then another dip into our recent run of one win in five.

Sunderland v Tranmere Rovers - Papa John’s Trophy Final Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

This meant that Lee Johnson was constantly firefighting, swinging from a crises to doing okay, back to another crises and rinse and repeat.

The pattern was clear and the noise generated during the good and the bad was too divisive to continue. The personality in charge meant it was completely unsustainable.

It may have been a different story if Lee Johnson had taken over in the summer, but because of last season he began with negative credit in the bank when this season kicked off and was already fighting a losing battle. There was anticipation for many for a slip-up where it would result in an opportunity to call for change.

I thought Lee Johnson did an “okay” job. Not spectacular, not a disaster, but okay. I thought the same about Jack Ross, but they never really had the fans fully behind them. I didn’t feel either of them had the personality to inspire the whole fanbase and get everything aligned.

Hull v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
First managerial change for Kyril Louis-Dreyfus to navigate
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The Bolton result was horrific, but Lee Johnson wasn’t sacked for one result. I’d be amazed if the new owner and Kristjaan Speakman weren’t aware of the fact Lee Johnson was becoming such a divisive figure and had discussions on the subject of his future for a number of weeks. It’s highly probable that going down 6-0 at Bolton merely accelerated the inevitable.

I’ve been asked if I think it’s a good decision, and my answer is the same as when Jack Ross was sacked. On that occasion we were an almost definite for the play-offs and the next appointment would need to go a step further if that was deemed not good enough. But we got it horribly wrong and appointed Phil Parkinson, who finished outside the play-offs, albeit the season was stopped short.

We’re now in the same position once again, in that we’re on course for a play-off position, and the next appointment needs to be a one that improves that situation. We’ll probably never know how much the new ownership were involved in appointing Lee Johnson in the first place, but it’s their first real test under the new structure that in theory should allow these sort of changes to become less destructive to the direction of the club.

So, who next? To put it simply, I have no idea. No name springs to mind immediately.

New Sunderland Manager Press Conference
“It’ll never last...”
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

It might sound old fashioned, but there’s something in the fact that Jack Ross and Lee Johnson couldn’t bring everyone together despite getting us there or thereabouts. My feeling is that we require a huge personality that the fans can get behind, and by that I’m not necessarily talking about the biggest name.

Throughout my lifetime, it’s been the Denis Smiths, Peter Reids, Roy Keanes and Big Sams that have the fans behind them by almost force of their personality. I’m not sure if I can put my finger on what it is, but they all have similar traits that Sunderland fans seem to respond best to.

Yes, it went wrong eventually for some of them, as it does for virtually every manager, but they all left the club in a better shape than when they arrived. But those types of manager had the club connected from manager to player to fan like no others since I’ve followed the club, and we could do with a bit of that in the dugout. It’s been too long since I’ve felt that. Many felt that way for Chris Coleman, but I didn’t really get it.

My guess is that the current structure requires someone who maybe isn’t that type, but I’d like to think that they have been doing their homework for a while and they move swiftly to get our push for automatic promotion back on track as soon as possible.

I’ve got no problem with us trying to change things, just as long as we’re competent in making the decision on what comes next.


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