Phil Parkinson (2019-2020)
Cast your mind back to 2019/2020 and the days of lockdowns, seasons being cut short because of Covid, a transfer policy that was beyond amateurish, and Charlie Wyke, Kyle Lafferty and Danny Graham vying for a place up front.
It was an era at Sunderland that’s not easily forgotten, and it serves as a lasting reminder to just how far we fell, how bleak things were, and exactly how much we’ve progressed in three short years.
The boss at the heart of those dark days? Philip John Parkinson, journeyman manager, supposed steady hand and all round charisma vacuum. Not necessarily the most tactically inept manager to pass this way, but certainly one of the most ineffectual and uninspiring.
Nowadays, Parkinson is something of a hero to many, given his achievements with Wrexham and the hype that’s been associated with the rise of the team from North Wales, but that chapter represents a strange anomaly, because his year-long spell in the Stadium of Light dugout saw us plunge to depths (literally and metaphorically) that we thought we’d never experience.
Trying to choose the most soul destroying result of the League One years is not an easy task, but a particularly woeful home loss to Burton Albion in late 2019 is one that’s always stood out in my mind.
As we sleepwalked our way to defeat on a bitterly cold night at a rapidly-emptying Stadium of Light, everyone was left with a horrible sense that the club was going nowhere fast, which at that stage was painfully true.
That game was an early setback for Parkinson, who was chosen as Jack Ross’s successor presumably on the basis that he could somehow galvanise the squad and steer us to promotion at the second attempt.
At the time, names such as Paul Cook and Gareth Ainsworth were being linked with Sunderland but Parkinson, who had a League One promotion on his CV (albeit over a decade earlier) was deemed the right man for the job.
The logic wasn’t dissimilar to the hiring of Simon Grayson, and just like that appointment, Parkinson’s spell on Wearside proved to be equally forgettable, albeit with some mitigating circumstances.
At the time, our recruitment policy was about as perplexing as it was possible to get, with the likes of George Dobson, Joel Lynch and latterly, Declan John and Laurens de Bock arriving on Wearside as we somehow tried to cobble together a group of players who could succeed where their predecessors had failed.
Nevertheless, the football was often brutal, results didn’t really take a dramatic upturn, and Parkinson’s habit of conducting monotonous and cliche-ridden post-match interviews (including a bizarre suggestion that a slanting pitch had somehow played a role in one result) didn’t help his cause either.
Under the stewardship of the former Bradford boss, we slid down the table to the barely-believable depths of fourteenth before a mini-revival during the winter of 2019/2020 saw us make a steady rise, giving everyone belief that maybe- just maybe- our stay in League One would only last for two seasons.
However, the onset of Covid in the spring of 2020 and the upheaval that followed ultimately scuppered any hopes we might’ve had of promotion.
The final home game before the pandemic took hold saw us drop two precious points to Gillingham, as former Sunderland player Mikael Mandron grabbed a last-minute equaliser.
The subsequent abandonment of the League One season, with the final positions decided on a points-per-game basis, meant that we finished outside of the playoffs, condemning us to a third successive campaign in the third tier.
Despite the messy end to the campaign, Parkinson retained his position for 2020/2021, but we failed to get off to the kind of start that was needed, with more inconsistent performances and results in the league, not to mention a truly horrific FA Cup exit at the hands of Mansfield.
On top of all that, the freezing out of fans’ favourite Aiden McGeady created another issue that we really didn’t need, and with a horrible sense of deja vu taking root, Parkinson was eventually jettisoned in late 2020 as the landscape at the club finally and mercifully began to change.
Netflix might’ve somehow turned Parkinson into the man on the leading edge of a Welsh revolution, but for Sunderland, he didn’t come anywhere close to fulfilling his brief, even in spite of the tough environment in which he was working.
Lee Johnson (2020-2022)
He began his Sunderland tenure with a home defeat to one Lancashire team in the shape of Wigan Athletic and ended it with a brutal away loss to another in Bolton Wanderers, so it’s probably safe to say that teams from the west side of the Pennines don’t hold too many good memories for the man who introduced POMOs and shark analogies into the Sunderland lexicon.
Easily the most ‘Marmite’ Sunderland boss of recent times and one of the more left-field choices to have sat in the home dugout at the Stadium of Light, Johnson, who’s now coaching up in Scotland with Hibernian, oversaw a transitional period on Wearside.
This was a time when we began to operate in a much more structured way on the pitch and in the transfer market, as our ethos of giving young players their chance began to take shape.
Ultimately, Johnson wouldn’t see it through, but despite the mass celebrations when he departed, his spell in charge was by no means an total failure, and his tenure did bring some real positives after the twelve month grind we endured under his predecessor.
Coming off the back of Phil Parkinson’s underwhelming reign, Johnson’s arrival coincided with Kristjaan Speakman and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus first appearing on the radar in late 2020, a major turning point in itself.
At the time, we weren’t in brilliant shape, either on the field or off it, with a squad that hardly measured up and our prospects of promotion very much in the balance. One early positive was the signing of Ross Stewart in January 2021, and the arrival of the Scot was an early milestone on our eventual road to recovery.
During the latter half of 2020/2021, it felt like we were consistently scrambling to make up ground and secure a top six berth at the minimum. We eventually did, but defeat in the playoff semi-finals to Lincoln was an early setback for Johnson- one which from which the early doubts seemed to grow substantially.
The summer of 2021 was a key period, as a new and much-talked about ‘data-driven recruitment’ plan was implemented.
This resulted in players such as Alex Pritchard, Dennis Cirkin and Corry Evans arriving at the club, as well as loanees including Manchester City defender Callum Doyle and Everton forward Nathan Broadhead.
Alongside the emergence of Dan Neil and Elliot Embleton as first team regulars, it represented a major change for the better and for the first time, there seemed to be a genuine plan for the future under a boss who was keen to implement a more positive and attack-minded approach.
It’s an objective truth that under Johnson, we were capable of playing some superb football, many players began to emerge as genuinely exciting prospects, and some of the results he oversaw were excellent, not least the 5-0 home victory over Sheffield Wednesday.
Having also pulled off the most Sunderland-themed Wembley success possible by winning the EFL Trophy at a deserted national stadium, Johnson also steered us to the quarter finals of the 2021/2022 League Cup, before that run ended at the hands of Arsenal.
However, there were also some shockers along the way, including bruising away losses to Rotherham and Portsmouth, and with some fans still seething over our failure in the playoffs, Johnson always seemed to be fighting an uphill battle.
Personality-wise, Johnson always felt like an awkward fit at Sunderland.
Traditionally speaking, it’s generally been gruff, no-nonsense bosses who’ve succeeded here, and he was neither. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s fair to say that he never enjoyed the sort of unified backing that’s generally needed.
His chirpy, impish demeanour and penchant for Alan Partridge-like quotes and analogies seldom went down well with our supporters, and accusations that he was arrogant, blinkered and incapable of making the right tactical adjustments were also regular criticisms.
Ultimately, the end of his reign was predictably brutal.
The 6-0 loss at the hands of Bolton, a game during which Danny Batth had a nightmare and the team looked as bereft of ideas as they'd done for a while, was the tipping point, and few tears seemed to be shed when news broke of Johnson’s sacking, not least because there was still plenty of time left in the season for whoever came next to turn things around.
After a somewhat farcical two-week search, his successor finally arrived in the shape of Alex Neil, who immediately set to work in trying to finish the job and get us out of the third tier.
In recent times, Johnson has continued to speak graciously and highly of the club and the time he spent here.
In retrospect, perhaps he was just too offbeat a personality for a club such as Sunderland. His football philosophy was admirable, but implementing it successfully arguably proved too arduous a task, in spite of the quality of the players at his disposal.