During our time in the third tier, Sunderland experimented with four distinctly different profiles of manager. How did they handle the demands of the Stadium of Light hotseat, and what were their main strengths and weaknesses?
Jack Ross (May 2018- October 2019)
Fan opinion has not judged Ross’s time as manager particularly kindly, but his spell in charge was nowhere near as bad as some have claimed.
When he arrived in May 2018, the former St. Mirren boss was an unknown quantity south of the border. At the time, Aberdeen’s Derek McInnes was also linked with the role, but Ross was certainly a brave man for accepting the job following Stewart Donald’s takeover.
Simply put, Sunderland AFC was in ruins following relegation from the Championship, and Ross had to oversee a squad rebuild, as well as attempting to lift a battered club and fanbase from the canvas.
His sole full season in charge would see us lose only five league games in total, but fail to deliver the prize we all craved, despite having the likes of Bryan Oviedo, Aiden McGeady, George Honeyman, and Jon McLaughlin at his disposal.
Under Ross, we were hard to beat and often capable of playing good football, but too many draws denied us any real momentum, and the perception of him as being dour and uninspiring was hard to shake off.
As 2018/2019 reached its conclusion, Ross’s tenure was ultimately defined under the arch at the national stadium.
After the initial excitement at two trips to the capital, he could not exorcise the long-standing curse, as a loss in the EFL Trophy final against Portsmouth was followed by a playoff final defeat to our old enemies, Charlton Athletic.
The playoff campaign had been preceded by a poor run of form that saw us fall away from the automatic promotion picture, and a listless performance in the final set the alarm bells ringing.
Off the field, and in terms of his personality, Ross often felt like an awkward fit.
He was evidently a decent, amiable man, but he wasn’t particularly confrontational, and you often got the sense that he was bemused by the criticism he received. Some of the abuse he took went beyond the pale, however, and there were times when he would’ve been well within his rights to walk away.
By the time 2019/2020 kicked off, it was obvious that support for Ross was dwindling. Results did not take a major upturn, and a 2-0 defeat at Lincoln brought the curtain down on his reign.
Ross was by no means a disaster as Sunderland boss, and did help to calm things down after two seasons of turbulence, but his remit was promotion, and he did not deliver.
Phil Parkinson (October 2019-November 2020)
A supposed ‘steady hand’ on the tiller, having guided Colchester to Championship promotion back in 2005/2006, Parkinson was generally seen as a safe, pragmatic choice in the wake of Ross’s sacking.
At the time, a litany of names were being linked with the position, but the ex-Bradford and Bolton manager was the man tasked with trying to steer us to promotion at the second attempt.
Without getting personal, I believe that Parkinson’s time in charge represented the nadir of our spell in League One. When one of the genuine highlights of a manager’s tenure is a 5-0 victory over a desperately poor Tranmere team, you know that things aren’t exactly rosy.
For the majority of his thirteen months in charge, the football was dour, the team’s form was mediocre, and the overwhelming feeling was that the club was going nowhere fast. A home defeat against Burton in November 2019 was one of the most soul-destroying games I’ve ever attended, and it was under his management that we plummeted to the uncharted depths of fifteenth in the table.
It was also during this time that some of the most bizarre transfers in Sunderland’s recent history came to pass.
If the January 2020 loan signings of Declan John and Laurens de Bock were puzzling, the return of Danny Graham later that year was positively astonishing, and with Jim Rodwell overseeing things by that stage, it was obvious that all was not well.
The Covid-19 pandemic ultimately curtailed the 2019/2020 season, and we missed out on the playoffs based on the PPG algorithm.
Parkinson would remain at the helm for the start of the following campaign, but there was no real sense of progress, the exile of Aiden McGeady provided another unwanted distraction, and his eventual departure was no surprise.
Simply the wrong fit for Sunderland, and nowhere near inspirational enough to galvanise a group of players and a disillusioned fanbase.
Lee Johnson (December 2020-January 2022)
He didn’t deliver the big prize, but Johnson’s arrival ultimately laid many of the foundations for our long-overdue escape from League One.
His time in charge also precipitated a much-needed overhaul of the club’s infrastructure- as well a shakeup in the boardroom- when Kyril Louis-Dreyfus arrived at Sunderland as the EFL’s youngest chairman.
Johnson took over midway through the 2020/2021 season, and although we initially looked well-placed to challenge for automatic promotion, our form collapsed, and we eventually succumbed to a playoff semi-final defeat at the hands of Lincoln.
On the upside, some joy was gained by winning the Papa John’s Trophy, albeit at an empty Wembley, in what was probably the most ‘Sunderland’ kind of cup victory imaginable.
Despite the playoff disappointment, Johnson- along with sporting director Kristjaan Speakman- oversaw a major summer rebuild, opting to place their faith in youth, lowering the average age of the squad and implementing a new and highly positive style of play.
When Johnson’s team got it right, we were a joy to watch, and results like the 3-1 home victory over Wycombe and the 5-0 demolition of Sheffield Wednesday were proof that his style of football could work. It was also uplifting to see players like Dan Neil and Elliot Embleton emerging, and a run to the League Cup quarter-finals was a real bonus.
On the other hand, Johnson’s tactical acumen and defensive organisation were often lacking, and a handful of heavy defeats before Christmas planted the first seeds of doubt.
An often-divisive figure among the fans, Johnson was regularly criticised for his chirpy speaking style and his penchant for colourful analogies.
Bizarrely, he also found himself on the receiving end of flak for his height, his fashion choices, and his apparent reluctance to resign Jermain Defoe- a decision that was emphatically vindicated when a woefully off-the-pace Defoe retired a mere six weeks after rejoining the club at the end of the January transfer window.
Results were ultimately Johnson’s downfall, however, and a dreadful 6-0 away defeat at the hands of Bolton proved to be his last game in charge. At the time, we were still very much in the automatic promotion picture, but the doubts had clearly grown too big to ignore.
Possibly too left-field and offbeat to truly win over the fans, Johnson nevertheless did some excellent work on Wearside, and did help to put the club on the path that was successfully navigated by the man who followed him.
Alex Neil (January 2022-)
Guaranteed the everlasting respect of Sunderland fans for finally guiding us back to the second tier, Neil only needed four months to turn the club’s fortunes around, overhaul the mentality of the players, and finally end our Championship exile.
His arrival, following a high-profile and ultimately doomed pursuit of Roy Keane, did not initially spark wild excitement, but Neil’s abrasive style, tactical nous and superb motivational skills had an immediate impact.
Despite working with a squad that wasn’t really ‘his’, he was able to shore up the defence, stem the flow of leaked goals, and guide us onto a stunning unbeaten run that saw us stride into the playoffs as the team to watch.
With absolutely no fear of the ghosts of seasons past, the way he steered Sunderland through the playoffs was a masterclass of big-game management.
Sheffield Wednesday were seen off over two thrilling legs, and the final against Wycombe was as stress-free a Wembley victory as you could ever wish for, as 45,000 fans finally saw the Lads end a jinx that had lasted for almost half a century.
Neil’s single biggest influence has been to inject belief, resilience, and toughness into the squad.
Players such as Bailey Wright and Danny Batth have thrived, Corry Evans has been reborn, and Patrick Roberts has become a key figure. Neil also brooks no nonsense from the media, and clearly recognises the enormous potential of the club.
There is a growing consensus that if he is given the backing of the hierarchy, Neil could be the man to eventually lead us back to the Premier League. Time will tell in that regard, but he has certainly made a colossal impact in the short time he has been here.