The question I keep asking myself as we head into the final few games of the season is; what do we need to do this summer?
By ‘we’ I don’t just mean the club, though what the club does this summer factors in quite significantly regarding the fans' actions going forward.
What worries me about recent events is no longer the anxiety over not achieving automatic promotion - in all honesty, I was prepared to give our last manager another season after this if the club had backed him, and we’ll get into that momentarily - but how we recover/repair the damage not only to this season, but to next and the seasons that follow those.
Lee was a polarising figure in some ways, well-liked but often derided by a vocal minority.
Despite those clamouring for his head as soon as a slip was made, a great many of our fans bought into his vision to the point he was sort of representative of the entire move forward - the long-term plan to build a young exciting side, play exciting football and achieve steady growth, and more importantly achieve stability regarding our position in the pyramid.
Not for any longer than necessary of course, in the idea of this long-term plan I made up in my head apparently... any manager achieving promotion from League One would get just one season to prove himself at Championship level, before being reviewed and likely upgraded for a charge back to the top flight.
I was discussing with a few of the lads last week - due to some arguments about Alex Neil that showed a division of sorts in the group - something I’ve thought about regarding how the club can ‘manage’ the fanbase, beyond simply providing spectacular entertainment and promotion.
I think the best thing the club can do is pick a coach and just stick with that coach.
I know, this is ground-breaking stuff, but you come out and tell everyone that no matter what happens - short of an imminent relegation scenario - this is the head coach and he’s not going anywhere for as long as you’ve seen fit to contract him for, regardless of how many people cry about it. Regardless of what fan media outlets like ourselves say, regardless of what the local media say, regardless of any trending clickbait and faux outrage.
It’s what they should’ve done with Lee Johnson and it’s what it looked like they would be doing until January of this year.
A while ago, before I took a long break from Twitter and various other forms of social media after the LJ/Defoe/Keano/Speakman debacle, I was discussing the issue of unity with a fellow long-suffering fan. An older man than I with an extra decade or so of Sunlun specific suffering (a common ailment) under his belt, and he stated that unity of the fans could never be achieved fully regardless of who the head coach is or how well we play. I think I’m partly paraphrasing the latter but it’s something that I’ve always found frustrating.
The problem a lot of fans (like myself) have had since the chaos truly took hold this year isn’t simply Lee Johnson’s sacking - a man who got a standing ovation and his songs sung at the SOL the week before he was sacked by the way, which is unusual for any Sunderland manager just before they leave in my experience. The problem now is again that many people are nervous about the people making these decisions.
So the aftermath of all that chaos that followed left a fair portion of fans reeling in both shock and to a large extent, anger. Others of course felt relief as the great vertically challenged Satan was dismissed by the genius that is Kristjaan Speakman. The two opposing sides clashed, and continue to do so. Only I don’t think ‘the debate’ between those throwing barbs at each other on a daily basis is actually anything to do with who is the best fit for our club - I believe the many voices you may come across - online particularly - are simply arguing for the sake of it; directing their ire at those they deem responsible, whether those people are or not.
This is of course nothing new, this high turnover of managers and routine infighting has become all too easy for our rivals to mock, as we’re famously intolerant of any managerial incompetence of any kind, and even less tolerant of the opinions of others.
No different to many football fans of clubs our size when they’re down in the sort of position we’re in, we do tend to suffer from a state of mass delusion, usually of grandeur and occasionally of persecution. We feel the attacks from others about the state of our club keenly, and we do love our nostalgia for the good old days. I’m a particularly big fan of this, actually.
So we can collectively convince ourselves - just as easily as our Yemeni-hating cousins up the road - that we deserve far better than we have... that games shouldn’t just be won, but should be won in a manner befitting a club of our stature in the game. We can’t grind results in League One man we’re supposed to be up with the big boys.
We often believe sober or otherwise that we are indeed meant to be comfortably amongst the elite of English football... only we haven’t been this way since just after Hitler put a bullet in his brain, as allied forces stormed Berlin; in fact our rightful place since the ‘50s (and the straw debacle) has been somewhere between the lower end of the top tier and the top end of the second tier. We’re ‘naturally’ in between tiers, we have been for nigh on seven decades, and regardless of how traumatic and often miserable all that was, most of us would like to get back where we belong.
This is fair enough.
But back to the original point, I think it’s clear Alex Neil isn’t the perfect manager, which is why he’s managing at the level he is currently. Very few managers are perfect, but what we don’t need - and what we didn’t need under LJ - is knee-jerk judgement of a man brought in to rescue the club from itself.
On the pitch, Alex Neil leads our squad, he has manged to steer the ship back towards our dream destination: out of this f*cking division. Our fate is now in his hands, so he deserves our patience in my opinion regardless of what side of any arguments you’re actually on. After all, it isn’t possible for the man to show everything he’s capable of coming in as late as he has.
As I’ve stated above, I don’t believe it’s just on the fans to back Alex Neil. I think everyone at every level needs to do so. Clarity is important and it’s clarity from the club - that this man is the one - that we need to see, not in Neil’s actions currently and over the coming weeks, but in the club’s.
We need to see from the club hierarchy some tangible sign that after the embarrassing and erratic behaviour that reared its head during and immediately following the transfer window; they actually do still have this long-term plan, and that the decision to employ Alex Neil was made not out of necessity in the short-term but out of a belief that this head coach can be trusted to guide us to the next level.
As an angry and disappointed LJ lover who believed he could be ‘the one’ I’m willing to give Alex Neil the same chance I gave Lee. I just wonder... how many others feel the same way? How many are willing to throw this man under the bus prematurely - regardless of results - because of anger over stupidity from certain people at the club?
As I write this, there are many people hating the football they’ve seen under this manager, those who will make comparisons with Phil Parkinson as far as being defensively solid but lacking in attack. They will attack him because he’s quite simply not Lee Johnson.
There are many singing his praises, some not because they truly believe in him but because they have to in order to back up previous public statements and positions. It wouldn’t matter to them if we were now sat 14th, it would somehow be progress because he’s quite simply not Lee Johnson.
There are a great many more fans between these two distinct ‘factions’ that agree with the occasional valid points from both, but find them both utterly exhausting. While the former groups will likely equally ignore certain facts in favour of furthering their positions and stances, be it statistics, league position, or what they can see with their very eyes - the latter (somewhat larger) group will simply ignore the bullshit and get on with supporting their side no matter what.
I just know, as many of you reading this know, that we cannot continue the cycle of high turnover of managers, we cannot change everything again and again every 12 months. We cannot seek to derail or undermine a manager because he isn’t immediately the perfect fit for every fan.
Simon O’Rourke stated on a podcast recently that Alex Neil - should he find himself in a difficult position in January next year - will likely find himself out of a job, and that Alex knows this... but is this really what we want again, or are the club going to show some genuine commitment to their own sodding cause? Are those supporting the head coach now still going to be supporting him in 8 months or so? Are those grumbling about him going to become his biggest defenders - just to spite those who may by then want him gone?
Unfortunately, I find myself agreeing with that gentleman I alluded to earlier, that unity is likely impossible.
But it f*cking well shouldn’t be.