Almost a year ago, on January 29, 2022, we suffered one of our worst-ever defeats in a 6-0 hammering by Bolton Wanderers, which spelled the end of manager Lee Johnson’s tenure at Sunderland AFC, even though we were lying 3rd in League One at the time. A month earlier we had been sitting top of the League after crushing Sheffield Wednesday 5-0.
I was in shock at the time, having watched the weird Lancashire defeat live. I am not minimising that terrible performance, but Bolton hit 5 goals in just 7 shots, with Danny Batth contributing an own goal. We actually had more possession than the home team, so it made for a very strange day overall.
The weeks that followed were truly awful and traumatic for fans.
That’s mainly because I expected there to be a plan behind Johnson’s sacking, but instead, during a vacuum of leadership, we went into a sequence of six games against modest opposition, yielding just two points. After a lot of speculation about Roy Keane, Alex Neil was hired on as Sunderland’s Head Coach on 11th February, but it was not until the 22nd of that month that we started the unbeaten run that took us through to the playoffs and that amazing Wembley victory.
Perhaps the club’s leadership has turned over a new leaf and found a new way of working together, but so far in the Championship there has been convincing competence in terms of leadership and a real togetherness at Sunderland AFC that we’ve not seen for a while.
When I was working in the US from 2006 - 2016, I learned about Business Process Re-engineering (BPR), which is all about defining a new process within an organisation. Once defined, that process is followed and trusted, usually with positive outcomes. Some of the management disciplines involved include:
- Look for improvement opportunities and validate them
- Design a cutting-edge future-state process map
- Create a new process that solves all the problems you have identified
Under the last bullet a sub-point is: don’t be afraid to design a totally new process that is sure to work well.
Whatever happened in terms of redesigning the organisation, the club now has a structure, which makes it much easier and less painful to address challenges when they arise. For example, the summer recruitment plan was concluded with at least two players for each position, and there was a logic to the player enlistment; the process involved a focus on young, hungry players who would improve with coaching and playing time.
The new system was tested when Alex Neil chose to leave, but there was hardly a bump in the road when Tony Mowbray stepped in smoothly, without a dip in performances.
Soon after that we lost both our recognised strikers - but no worry, we changed shape as a team, giving Roberts, Clarke and Diallo a chance to step forward, and although we obviously missed players of the quality of Simms and Stewart, we won valuable points and were not shown up in any game.
Compare and contrast these events to that major blow to performances when Lee Johnson was sacked; things are somehow different now. As one fan tweeted: there are no big egos in the team, no passengers and no wasters just there for the money.
As a result, we see true team play.
So as far as the remainder of January goes, I am happy to trust the recruitment team at our beloved club to get it right. It’s a bit like the ad, “There’s an app for that”...
- New striker: there’s an app for that √
- Head coach change: there’s an app for that √
- Change of ownership: there’s an app for that √
- Spat in the dressing room: there’s an app for that √
- Make the playoffs: there’s an app for that √
Overall, my usual anticipated season of following Sunderland is to be driven to the edge of psychosis and new levels of misery by bad performances, missed opportunities and terrible mismanagement at our club.
By contrast, this season has been relatively peaceful and at times, quite relaxing.
I will happily “trust the process” and see where that brings us as a football club come the end of the season.