A week of quintessential mid-season fun for every Sunderland fan is upon us.
Rattling off names of random ex-footballers who might fancy a job because they’ve had one coaching gig (Carrick, Terry, Ferguson), confidently calling for appointments of managers most recently employed in the Premier League (looking at every single time the name Chris Wilder was mentioned previously), arguing about how whether Gus Poyet was any good or not (League Cup final, didn’t get relegated, but did lose 8-0 and sign Will Buckley) and reminiscing about what might have been under Big Sam, Roy Keane, or a weird combination of the two.
We have a busy week ahead of us, so before we do too much of that, it seems only right to take a second to give some credit to a manager who can leave the club both mildly pleased with his work, and probably quite aggrieved he didn’t get a chance to finish it.
First, a disclaimer: I wasn’t at Bolton on Saturday. Whoever determines my university calendar must have had a premonition and very kindly made me busy, so I didn’t get to add this one to my personal file of thumpings containing Southampton, Portsmouth and Sheffield Wednesday among others.
So, while my respect for those that were there is boundless and the anger, humiliation and general inability to comprehend what happened are all very justified, I can’t quite see the long-term logic of Saturday being a sacking offence.
Needless to say, getting battered four times in a season is alarming. But in spite of the batterings, we are in quite good shape. Had we carried on the form that saw LJ scoop Manager of the Month all of five games (and just two defeats) ago, we would be in far better shape. But ultimately, that 6-0 defeat, bar the potential impact on our goal difference it has, especially when added to Portsmouth and Rotherham, is still only one game we get nothing from.
To allow 3 weeks of football to take us from the highest point of hope we had known in years to being back on the hunt for a manager seems quite frankly reckless and while the outpouring of anger on Saturday night was fair, it was not one which justified the owners taking action. The worst result in our history it may be, but it comes amid our best season in years. The bad need not have detracted from all the good that was being done.
And so, a reminder of why we were beginning to believe. Lee Johnson took over from Phil Parkinson in December 2020, and started with a 0-1 behind-closed-doors home defeat to Wigan Athletic having been appointed about 2 hours before kick-off.
The scale of the task that day was very clear for all to see, as we sat 9th in League One, a place below the 8th place finish we had achieved the season before, and played like a team who would never score again. This season we have won all but 2 at home, been to a cup quarter-final at the Emirates and been able to watch a largely young team flourish and grow amid the chaos of a league which rarely looks a suitable breeding ground for such talent – all under the manager who delivered our first Wembley win in so many of our lifetimes.
Johnson’s faith in youth and reputation for, and commitment to, playing attractive football saw us entrusted with coveted young talents from Manchester City and Bayern Munich and has since seen us bring in talents once touted for the very top, in Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke, who have everything to prove and all the ability to prove it.
He has brought through our best academy product of my young lifetime who isn’t called Jordan, in Dan Neil, who looks a player cut out of the Johnson coaching mould - utterly unbothered by pressing, and rapidly developing a presence on the pitch that gives him the right to almost nonchalantly stroke the ball around.
Admittedly, both Neil and the before-eluded to Doyle have in recent weeks borne the cross of what has been said to be Johnson’s fatal flaw – the whole Streaky Lee thing.
Doyle has looked more defensively suspect at times of late and Neil has almost looked tired, struggling to always capture the spark which makes him so good.
But yet again, we have to remember our place.
We are a League One side with a mixture of very League One players and very young players. Neither of those two types of footballer can do it for 46 games in a row. Because as ever, if they could, they wouldn’t be here. We were on a bad run. The Streaky Lee nonsense turned that into something far more important than it was.
To end, almost a word of thanks to Lee Johnson.
We may not have been there, but one Sunday afternoon last March, you broke a curse that haunted this club since we won a cup final we weren’t supposed to win. And we when we go back to that god-forsaken place hoping for our next win there we will go knowing it isn’t, as so many couldn’t help to begin to suspect it was, impossible.
A good man who did a good job, and a man who has a career in this business yet. Let’s hope that for Lee Johnson and Sunderland, this is onwards and upwards.