The seemingly erratic nature of Jack Ross’ departure has led to a scattergun approach to securing his replacement. At a pivotal moment in Sunderland’s history, it must be ensured that the next person in the hot seat is the right one. Sacking Ross can only be vindicated if his replacement leads us to promotion. We need someone who can solve our defensive and attacking issues, with knowledge and experience to get us out of the division. Out of the several clubs we’ve approached about our managerial vacancy, there is, at a glance, one stand-out candidate who meets all of those criteria, Wigan Athletic’s Paul Cook.
Cook has won promotions at each of his last three clubs, as well as winning silverware during a spell at Sligo Rovers. However, it isn’t just Cook’s promotions that make him the standout candidate. At Portsmouth and Wigan, he successfully dealt with the weight of expectation and ‘big club’ tag that Sunderland struggled with this season and last. Though Cook enjoyed success at Portsmouth in League Two, it is his record with the Latics that makes him the man for the job. Cook’s Wigan side won the title in 2018 with 98 points [two away from Stewart Donald’s target].
Perhaps more relevant to our current situation is that they set the League One clean sheet record in the process, managing an impressively 27 from 46 games. Even last season in the Championship though they finished 18th, in terms of clean sheets they were 8th, with 12. For context, Norwich who won the title, only managed 13.
Cook is also someone who can work to a budget, something which will endear him to chairmen everywhere. Although Cook inherited a side which had won League One just two seasons before his arrival, Wigan paid fees for only two players during his first season, totalling around £600k. To his credit, promotion was sealed despite neither of those players arriving them until January and one of them being James Vaughan.
Crucially though, it is his record with the players already at the club which makes him an exciting candidate. Not only would we be bringing in a manager with experience and a proven track record in the division, Cook has proved himself capable of getting the best out of Will Grigg. Grigg managed 26 goals in all competitions under Cook’s management as Wigan won the title in 2018, which prompted us to sign him in January. The importance of this cannot be understated, given the pressure any incoming manager is under to achieve promotion this season and the lack of time afforded to managers generally. A relationships with existing players would be vital to someone coming in without the luxury of a transfer window to build their squad.
An in-form Will Grigg would have got us promoted last season and can still take us up this season. Jack Ross’ failure to get him firing was arguably his biggest disappointment in his time at Sunderland. For whoever succeeds Ross, getting Grigg back to form will be their biggest task, and the key to any success they might have. In Paul Cook, there is a man who has done it before, and could do it again.
Typically, the best man for the job may also be the most difficult to get to Wearside. Cook has strong ties with Wigan. His current stint with the Latics is his third at the club, having made 89 appearances in two spells there as a player. The club have also backed Cook with a contract until 2022 and more money than ever to spend last summer. Despite this, Wigan currently find themselves in 19th place, three points ahead of Reading who occupy the last relegation place. With three of the five teams below them already opting for a change in manager, sooner or later Wigan may decide to follow suit. From an outsider’s perspective, it might be that Cook has taken Wigan as far as he can. Perhaps if a club like Sunderland offered him an exit route, maybe he’d take it.
However, getting Cook to leave the North West may prove to be the bigger challenge. Born in Liverpool, as well as Wigan he turned out for Tranmere, Stockport, Burnley and Accrington Stanley in his playing days, going on to manage Stanley and Southport. He’s had spells away, but always returned to the area, and it’s something which could potentially prove a stumbling block for any move to the North East.
For me, these ties are something we should go all out to overcome, ahead of any other candidate. Although the good job Cook has done at Wigan in winning promotion and then establishing them in the Championship is the bare minimum requirement at the Stadium of Light, the foundations are there for Cook to build on. We just need to go and get him.