Last Saturday’s emphatic and deserved win over Wigan Athletic meant that an otherwise traumatic February for Sunderland fans ended on a high note in what has been a weirdly inconsistent season.
The promise of a young, exciting footballing team that held top spot in League One as recently as the New Year evaporated for a while, and as supporters we wondered how and when things were going to turn around. Let’s all hope that Alex Neil’s first win which came in such style over a Wigan team that had not lost since September signals a change of fortune for the Black Cats.
Clearly, over recent weeks some of the gloss has come off the Kyril Louis Dreyfus/Speakman/Davison axis, as it is clear that there was a lapse in their planning when the now-former Sunderland manager Lee Johnson was sacked seemingly on a whim after that 6-0 hammering at the hands of Bolton at the end of January.
We cannot know all that went on behind the scenes but seeing the stunning collapse in the team’s fortunes over the past weeks, there clearly was not a plan B in place after the change was made. And looking back, the sacking of Johnson was possibly an error.
I am not minimising that terrible defeat to the Trotters, but Bolton hit 5 goals in just seven shots, with Batth contributing an own goal. We actually had more possession than the home team, so it was a very weird day overall.
I understand those who say seven wins since late October was not a great record, but we need to remember that the former Bristol City manager was regularly selecting teams with 12 first-teamers injured. He did conjure up some sparkling performances, notably three 5-0 home wins, the 3-0 away destruction of Doncaster and two earlier wins over Wigan. The team was playing with great confidence and attacking aplomb at times, but we did not defend well in several other games, and that is why he was shown the door.
It is now clear that the team was traumatised by losing the likeable Johnson as their mentor. As an amiable guy, he was honest in his analyses when things went wrong and his post-departure statement was magnanimous. Given the run we have been on since he left - the Wigan victory was preceded three defeats and two draws, I have missed him. But this is a tough world, his brief was promotion, and as soon as we started losing touch with the top two, the owners pulled the plug.
Other Roker Report writers have written at length about the ownership/shareholder issues, and I will not address them in-depth here, but to see how people have gambled with the future of our beloved club is not palatable to the fans. It is all an unnecessary distraction to what is happening on the pitch.
Since 2016 we have taken two relegations on the chin, but then to see how a bet was placed that parachute payments and a relative rookie manager in Jack Ross would take us back to the Championship ultimately failed. Subsequent failures in gaining promotion, followed by asset stripping and cost-cutting did not portray Madrox in a good light.
The final product of all activities at a football club is what fans see on the field of play, but the potential re-hiring of Roy Keane as manager did dominate media coverage of Sunderland for a while, as he is a high-profile character. When was the last time Sunderland AFC was discussed for example on 5Live’s Monday Night Club? Former Norwich, Blackburn, Chelsea and Celtic striker Chris Sutton was singing the praises of the Irishman who has in all honesty not set the world alight as a football manager since 2006-8 when he held the reins at the Stadium of Light.
When Keane was hired in 2006, he had Niall Quinn as his Chairman, mentor and confidante. That was incredibly important for his transition to a football manager and the Drumaville Consortium provided a supportive backdrop.
Despite his success in winning the Championship for us in 2007 and keeping Sunderland in the Premiership the following season, I see Keane as an abrasive character with a fragile ego. He would appear to drop players out of spite for making simple errors, and that meant that the defence was not a stable unit from week to week. Perhaps it was because he was such a gifted footballer himself that he could not tolerate the shortcomings of lesser mortals.
According to information released by Nick Barnes the former Manchester United captain did not come that close to the head coach role, as he somehow turned us down, but looking back I was relieved to miss out on him. It would all have been about Keane, and although I am sure he would have given some great interviews, I am much more comfortable with a quieter, calmer, young but highly rated Scotsman in charge.
We need now to build momentum and be the form team going into the play-offs, as automatic promotion is now beyond us. If Sunderland do end up gaining promotion at Wembley led by Alex Neil, the traumas of February will soon be forgotten.