In the 1998 British romcom, Sliding Doors, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, Helen, is fired from her job and rushes out to catch a train. Two scenarios take place. In one, she gets on the train and comes home to find her boyfriend in bed with another woman.
In the second, she misses the train and arrives after the woman has left. In the first scenario, Helen dumps her boyfriend, finds a new man, and gradually improves her life. In the second, she becomes suspicious of her boyfriend’s fidelity and grows miserable.
Replace Helen with Sunderland AFC. In the first scenario, the Sunderland hierarchy gets fed up with Lee Johnson leaving the team’s pants down and allowing them to take tonkings of 3, 4, 5, and 6 goals on their travels.
They finally lose patience with succumbing to the bully-boy tactics of most of the teams in League one, which saw the likes of Charlton and Lincoln steal points from the Stadium of Light.
The board dumps Johnson and replaces him with Alex Neil, the irascible Scot, who has no truck with past failings and whose preparation on the opposition is second to none. He injected much-needed steel into the side, instilled a winning mentality, and meticulously planned the downfall of all but one opponent in his short time at the club.
With Neil at the helm, the team ultimately finished the season on a high with a thoroughly professional performance at Wembley to win promotion to the Championship with a win in the League One play-off final.
What about the alternative scenario? If the board had persisted with Lee Johnson after the 6-0 away reverse at Bolton. Felt he had got the team in a good place and the team was still in third place despite that heavy defeat.
In the short term, defeats against Doncaster and Cheltenham would have been avoided and Wimbledon would most likely have been despatched with their tails between their legs.
It’s hard, however, to see a Johnson-managed side, beating Wigan 3-0 in their own yard or scrambling a last-minute equaliser at home to Rotherham. Equally the habit of snatching late wins like those against Shrewsbury, Oxford, and Gillingham would seem fantasy to a Johnson-led team.
And Plymouth, who had won their previous six games at home without conceding a goal when we visited on Easter Monday, would have been odds on to continue that run. So it’s easy to see a Johnson team being at least five points worse off than the total Neil’s side had amassed by the season’s end.
Leaving the side on 79 points, allowing Plymouth to sneak into the play-offs at our expense. Leaving the club facing a fifth season in League One.
The club would then inevitably dispense with Johnson’s, five months too late, and face a new transfer window with ten new signings. As it is, in reality, we have the semblance of stability, a manager who seems to have a plan, and a set of players who love playing with each other.
Thank goodness the club caught the train, as the alternative scenario of descent into more misery, doesn’t bear thinking about.