Focus is a word that keeps getting bandied about when speaking or reading about the travails of Sunderland AFC - and over the last few years there has been a lack of focus, and particularly a misdirection of focus on the main job in hand: promotion.
This has been a major contributing factor to successive missed opportunities and our ultimate failure over the last three and a half years to escape League One.
Let’s be brave and cast our minds back to our first attempt at promotion. A new broom had swept in, new owners, a new manager and a load of new players led to an initial sense of hope and a degree of positivity.
However, as the season progressed there were the ongoing distractions of Maja’s contract, the obsession with getting a record boxing day attendance, Maja’s botched replacement and then the build-up to the EFL Trophy final and a Wembley occasion, which was a great day out but one that significantly hampered our season’s aim.
Only Sunderland could turn positives into something of a distraction of attention from the one thing that mattered - promotion.
After the New Year, there was no steely-eyed focus on winning games; winning became an assumed right, not something that had to be earned. The wins dried up, and the draws became commonplace as energy was sucked out of the squad.
It felt like the club’s focus was on everything but winning promotion, the one thing that was important. It couldn’t have helped those involved that this was all filmed for Netflix.
Focus on the main job in hand was diverted elsewhere.
After that gut-wrenching season's end, season number two in League One was upon us.
The fallout from that Wembley defeat dragged on, with the club up for sale and then not up for sale leading to preparations for pre-season not being made and for new signings delayed. This all contributed to a disastrous start and Jack Ross being sacked.
Again, the lack of focus on winning games was evident, other things were going on to take up energy and attention.
Jack Ross mentioned in interviews that he was being asked to do much more than being first-team coach. Focus on first-team matters? Maybe, if he was given a chance. The fanbase at this point united in a desire for change at the top and distracted from the objective of promotion, again, before COVID ended the season and we were left with Parky in charge for our next attempt.
Season three, and after a depressing period the depressing Phil Parkinson was off and new a new owner and Sporting Director arrived to distract us from the events on the pitch, again. A new head coach to implement a new philosophy which was now the primary focus of the club’s attention. Promotion? We will focus on that next season, or the one after.
Then to 2021/22, season number four, and the current position we find ourselves in. The philosophy, the data, the development of future players is to be the focus. Promotion feels like the aim, but is it where all of the focus of those in charge is?
Of course, it should be and those in charge will insist it is, but their “evidence-based decisions” contradict that. Sacking a head coach when in third place the day before deadline day, selling two defenders when short of defenders suggests focus was elsewhere.
Were they actually concentrating on what should be the job at hand?
The return of Jermain Defoe, the potential of Roy Keane returning, and the overly long recruitment process to replace Lee Johnson distracted everyone and winnable games were lost, focus on the next game is the old saying. One game at a time, win and move on, should be the constant narrative in any promotion campaign.
We know the story. The evidence suggests that focus was certainly lost by the first team, and the top two places are now out of reach.
If that was not enough there was a further unnecessary distraction - the issue of share ownership raised its head to change the narrative, and again, an unwelcome and wholly avoidable distraction. A story that was completely avoidable, and that was always going to rear its head and distract us from what we should be concentrating on.
The above isn’t intended to be a history lesson, we have lived it all too recently.
However, the common thread is that for near enough four seasons in this league, the team, the management, the fans and the club have had their attention drawn away from what is most important and that is escaping League One.
Escaping feels like an appropriate term, as promotion from this league will bring no glory, but without full attention focussed on this aim then it will never be achieved.
So, it is time for the club to look inwards and to focus, to focus on the one goal that actually matters. It’s time to fully focus on getting out of this bloody league, without any unnecessary distractions.