I guess the phrase “unprecedented times” has another new meaning this week. It’s one thing us not being able to go to games because of Covid, but now they aren’t even taking place! We gathered a group of ALS writers (in a socially distanced manner) to comment on a few topical topics…
First up, four games in a very short time for the new boss. What have we learned about him? What’s your gut feeling, is he a breath of fresh air or is anything better than PP!
Sobs: Games have come thick and fast for the new gaffer – a Premier League boss would be calling the fixture list unfair and demanding it to be rearranged – but he’s done a few things that needed doing and he’s done them very quickly, even if he’s only been effectively in charge for three of them. Therefore, we’ve learned that he’s not afraid to shake things up (and take the backs off clocks to insert batteries) and move to the on-field system that he trusts. He obviously thinks that we have the players to adapt to his preferred formation, otherwise he’d not have changed to it. He’s obviously spent a lot of years studying the game, judging by the references he’s made to what his dad did in management when he (Lee) was a bairn. Of course he’s a breath of fresh air after Parky – he’s a more lively character, which is blatantly obvious and not really difficult to achieve, and appears to have some better ideas about how to use the players that we have. However, his use terms like “an eight or a ten” instead of “an attacking midfielder or a defensive midfielder” is something that gets right on my wires. It might seem petty on my part, but why use terms that aren’t immediately understandable? - although I guess that’s just him being a modern manager/coach and me being picky. His impact on the way we’re playing with essentially the same players has been immediate- we’ve been screaming (at the telly) for the inclusion of Diamond and Embleton, and he’s brought them in and comments from the likes of Wyke have shown that the players (well, most of them) appreciate what Johnson is asking of them. Bringing back McGeady shows that he’s prepared to let bygones (whatever they were) be bygones and use what we’re paying for. Generally, he’s brought an air of positivity to our performances, and that’s been a massive relief to the fans. Having said that, you can be as positive as you like but losing eight players at short notice will have a negative effect on how you play. We’re not Liverpool, and we don’t have amazingly talented kids who can slot seamlessly into the first team without affecting its overall effectiveness. The Wimbledon game should never have been played, as it’s made a mockery of the whole Covid “protocol” in the EFL, who have been typically woolly in their response to our situation, which meant the club were rightly nervous in their response to it. What kind of advice is “you can postpone it, but we’ll investigate you” in the current situation? It should be remembered by both parties that this isn’t just a box-ticking exercise, but doing the right things, rules or not, to keep people safe.
Garry Burrell: Lee Johnson is a walking, talking advert for England’s DNA Philosophy that the FA launched at St George’s Park, but I’m all for it! Granted there are times when he speaks where he appears to be a combination of David Brent and Alan Partridge, but he clearly has a planned way of working and an enthusiasm and effervescence that was sadly missing with his predecessor. I’m sure there will be times after a heavy defeat that I’ll want to punch the screen when Johnson talks about his philosophy or POMOs, but for now I’m very happy with the appointment.
Michael Conroy: I don’t like him. Not for any footballing reasons but because he’s made me feel old. Having accepted the fact that I will never make it as a professional footballer now, Sunderland have gone and appointed a manager who, for the first time, is younger than me. Johnson and Parkinson are so far removed from each other it’s hard to comprehend that they are even the same species let alone coaching in the same sport at the same club. The Brent comparisons are rife, but to say it’s a breath of fresh air is underestimating it in my opinion. Parkinson was like Eeyore, now we have Tigger and I love it. That’s maybe because of a Parkinson hangover with Johnson being an extra large can of Red Bull, or Rich Energy. He’s had a lot to deal with so it’s difficult to judge him on anything really apart from the Lincoln game and even then it’s probably still too soon. In terms of how he talks though, if you can park the bullshit bingo card for a second it’s motivating. Not just for the players but for the fans who have been in the doldrums for too long. I don’t think we have really learned anything about him yet other than he talks a good game. Whether that can replicate into delivering results, we shall see. I’m very hopeful because I have been boring everyone I know for years about needing to adopt an identity. While Johnson talks about it I think the bigger appointment has widely slipped under the radar. Speakman, from everything I am hearing is a good appointment. That appointment actually provides something of an anchor or a blueprint to build a footballing identity and the head coach facilitates delivery of that blueprint. If Johnson can motivate, and I bet he can, then job done really. If we can get players navigating the corridor of uncertainty to feed it into the bomb alley so we can get it into the Pomo then how can we fail?
Now onto the Covid outbreak. Firstly, should the Wimbledon game have gone ahead? What happens now we have no games till after Xmas and how will it affect our season
Sobs: Johnson didn’t want the game to go ahead, but according to the EFL it was the club’s decision to do so. Brian Clough would probably have told the club to get stuffed and refused to put a team out – perhaps Johnson, in a year’s time, might do the same. As it is, we’ve drawn a game that we’d have almost certainly won with Saturday’s line-up (Embleton in for the injured Scowen), and that means we’re effectively two points worse off. We don’t know what effect being rushed back onto the pitch sooner that planned will have on the long-term fitness of Gooch, but now that’s a moot point as we’ve postponed at least the next three games because of the outbreak.
Garry Burrell: Definitely not. Firstly, the EFL should be absolutely clear with their rules and there should be no ambiguity over potential sanctions, but once the decision was put back in the hands of the club, it’s inconceivable that SAFC allowed the game to go ahead. I just hope that we have not put anyone at unnecessary risk, but it looks a dreadful decision to me, and one where we have put potential fines/penalties above people’s health. I don’t know what on Earth we were thinking. On how it effects our season, I’m going to be glass half-full and reflect on the fact it allows Lee Johnson more time to put in place his ‘philosophy’ with the playing squad, even if it is by video analysis as opposed to on the training pitch initially. We are all well aware now that playing catch-up with games in hand can be a hindrance, but given the circumstances with a new Head Coach, I don’t think it should necessarily derail our season. Here’s hoping anyway!
Michael Conroy: No. However, it’s not an easy question to dismiss so quickly. There are all sorts of minefields to negotiate in the decision making process. Winding back to the very start of this, I was of the firm opinion that football should not have restarted at all given the strain the country was under. Theatres and music venues with all their employment chains linked in were struggling and yet the millionaires in the premier league continued. It seemed immoral in some respects to keep football going while the NHS was being put under strain. Having made the decision to continue then there had to be assurances in place. Football is a contact sport. Testing was central to it all. If players were tested and they followed strict instructions around social distancing and then were tested regularly then the risks are minimised. If that testing hasn’t happened or that social distancing hasn’t happened then there is a problem. If, however, one player contracts Covid and everybody else is tested and comes back negative then what’s the issue? The fact we had 8 players out is not great. If we had three players on internationals we could postpone, what’s the difference? Having said that, there was no certainty around what the EFL’s reaction would be. In Rodwell’s statement he seemed concerned about an independent investigation looking at whether protocols had been followed. That may be just down to clumsy wording, but it did make my eyebrows rise. In light of the fact that we then went on to have a further four players test positive the answer to whether the game should have gone ahead is clearly no. Not only were we putting other players at risk, but we were putting coaches, medical staff, stadium staff and opposition players and staff at risk. The decision to call off the game is with Sunderland or the referee. They decided to play it, probably because the EFL couldn’t provide a definitive answer as to what would happen if it wasn’t played. The only answer they could give was as per the rule book, i.e. if you call off the game there will be an independent investigation. It’s a crass and inflexible response to the current crisis and the EFL need to look at that but Sunderland AFC, knowing the risk to health, also need to reflect on whether they should have taken the risk. Is it likely that anybody would have found against them for protecting people at the moment? I doubt it. In terms of what happens now with no games before Christmas, well we face a fixture backlog which is unfortunate to say the least. It cost us in our Checkatrade season and will possibly cost us again. Other clubs may be in the same boat in the months to come though so I think, from a wider perspective across the league, the EFL have a little bit of contingency planning to do. The fixture backlog is probably the least of our worries though. We know that the length of time people feel the effects of Covid vary. Some players may be suffering from fatigue for months, that’s the bigger issue as far as I’m concerned.
And finally, looking ahead to the transfer window. What do we need and where do we need it?
Sobs: The transfer window is interesting – which is the whole point of it, I suppose. By the time it opens Johnson will have had the chance to look at all of the players, and I think he’s already realised that some of the gaps he initially saw in the first eleven can be filled from the squad – Embleton and Diamond, for instance – while others can’t. Up front, he must have worked out that Grigg and Graham don’t give us what we need, while Wyke, in the system we now play, can do a job. As ever, if a proven goal-scorer becomes available on the cheap, however unlikely that might be, we should snap him up. Of course, there’s always the chance that Johnson will do what most managers do and raid their previous club.
Garry Burrell: Pace & Power (not you, Max). I can’t see us being too active in January, but should we bring anyone in, they MUST have the speed and strength we have been crying out for each Transfer Window. I am more optimistic this time around with Speakman and Johnson rather than the previous incumbents.
Michael Conroy: It’s hard to know what we need in the window given we haven’t yet seen what Johnson and Speakman are about, so anything is based largely on the inadequacies exposed under Parkinson. On that basis I’d say right back or right-wing back is a priority as is somebody creative in the middle of the park. Having said that we don’t yet know if Embleton is going to have more of a role so he could, potentially fit into that gap. We also don’t know if Johnson will take the shackles off other players like Power for instance. It’s always tempting to say we need a goal scorer, but there was a transfer window not that long ago where we bought one for over the odds and look where that got us. Right back, centre mid. That will probably do us.