If you asked Alexa or your favourite in-house Virtual Assistant to pinpoint a moment that Sunderland became ‘just another League One club’, it would probably respond with something along the lines of “On October 17, 2019, Sunderland confirmed the appointment of Phil Parkinson on a two and a half year deal.”
Of course, some would argue that we are a League One club and therefore it would be deluded to expect anything other than a third division manager.
However, it is very important to remember the context surrounding the appointment, just weeks previously there had been talk of Big Sam and Chris Houghton and managers who were used to operating at a level way beyond Sunderland’s level of operation.
The proposed FPP takeover was set to bring significant investment for not only the football club but the city as a whole, which caused understandable optimism amongst the fans.
But on the afternoon of October, 8 rumours were rife that the proposed takeover was off and Jack Ross was swiftly dismissed.
Naturally, I’m not insinuating that Ross was dismissed in order to deflect from bad news but just two hours before the club parted terms with the Scotsman, Ross was delivering his pre-match thoughts ahead of that evening’s Leasing.com Trophy fixture with Grimsby. I’ll invite you to draw your own conclusions on what happened in the meantime.
That evening, armed with a shovel to dig a hole even deeper for himself, Stuart Donald appeared on Radio Newcastle and stated that, “the underlying data suggested that we could not guarantee automatic promotion under Jack Ross” and he therefore had to go.
Perhaps this was a fair enough comment in isolation, but it makes the appointment of Parkinson even stranger.
If you sack a manager for being fifth in the league then his replacement must really hit the ground running to achieve your own criteria of automatic promotion and go some way to meeting the owners ambitious pre-season target of 100 points. It’s fair to say that the appointment of Phil Parkinson rarely promised such an upturn, despite the owners insisting that he had the best references of any candidate they’d ever seen and falsely boasting that he had stabilised Colchester United in the Championship; when in fact he was dismissed by Charlton when they were in the bottom three of the league and had just lost 5-1 to Geriant Jones’ Colchester.
Everything about his appointment screamed, “this is where you are now.”
Defenders of Parkinson referred to his track record at League One level, but even this claim was built on questionable foundations.
Upon arrival, he had won two promotions from the level in the previous 13 years, the first coming in 2006 and the latter arriving in 2017.
The time that separated his promotion with Colchester in 2006 and his appointment as Sunderland manager was greater than the time that elapsed between Howard Wilkinson winning the First division title with Leeds United and getting the Sunderland job in 2002.
At this stage the alarm bells were certainly ringing in the ears of supporters, but when you consider that his highest finish in the football pyramid was 21st in The Championship and even his promotion with Bradford City came via the playoffs after sneaking a 7th placed finish, the bell ringing reached an ear splitting volume.
The voices of discontent reached their peak after the lads drew 0-0 with bottom side Bolton Wanderers on boxing day which resulted in Sunderland dropping to 15th in League One and 63rd out of 91 teams to compete in the football league that season.
Cries of “Super Kevin Phillips” rang around the ground and boos greeted the arrival of Laurens De Bock in the closing stages and the blowing of the full time whistle.
Building up to the point of seemingly no return there had been weeks of negative football, a loss to Leicester City Under 21’s, Scunthorpe United and Gillingham and just two wins in 13 matches.
During that time we’d also been treated to a series of bizarre media comments such as, “It’s not a must win game, it’s a must play to the best of our ability game” before a home game with Burton Albion…suggested that we “gave it a good go” against Gillingham in an FA Cup replay in which we failed to register a shot on target in two hours of football; and praised his side's resilience in almost gaining a point at the Gills less than a month later, which he’d have “taken all day.”
But then in one of the greatest comebacks since Lazarus, Parkinson somehow got a response out of his players and won 9 out of his next 12 games, racing into 3-0 leads against Lincoln, Wycombe and Rochdale before the half time whistle had even been blown.
Gone was the dour football of his early days and in came some excellent pressing football which got the best out of his attacking players and the lads were playing with a genuine swagger. From calling for his head on boxing day, sections of the Roker End began to tentatively sing his name during a 3-0 win over Bristol Rovers.
This was as good as it got however and we failed to win another game before the season was cut short, a win in our two games before lockdown against Gillingham and the return fixture with Bristol Rovers would have seen us promoted.
This encapsulates the frustration of Parkinson’s reign, on occasion, albeit not very often we have been a joy to watch. Under his management we have won games, 5-0, 3-0, 4-0 and 8-1 and blown teams away early on, but all too often we’ve looked laboured and uninspiring.
So far this campaign the highs of last season’s displays against Wycombe and Lincoln were never met and when things got bad they were threatening to reach the lows of his early days in charge.
In the run up to his sacking we won just two games in 9 and had failed to beat a team with 11 men on the pitch since our victory over Crewe on October, 20.
Fortunately we still remain on the fringes of mounting a genuine promotion challenge, but that rather sums up our football club under Parkinson. Just when you think we are on the verge of establishing ourselves near the top of the league we suffered a damaging losing run. When he stumbled across a system and formula that worked he flogged it to within an inch of its life and was unwilling to freshen things up or trust players he’d brought in during the transfer window. His management was reactionary at best and he never carried himself with the confidence or self-belief that you need when you’re managing a football club of this size in a league far below its natural place in English football’s food chain.
Ultimately, Parkinson’s management saw us go from 5th in League One to 8th in League One, hardly the guarantee of automatic promotion we were promised.
The overall theme of his tenure was, ‘not quite good enough’, in short-a moderate third tier manager turned us into a moderate third tier team.
In many ways this was not Phil Parkinson’s fault, he delivered exactly what his track record suggested, which points to a failure of the people who recruited him rather the manager himself.
Regardless of who potential new ownership are or who is calling the shots the next appointment must be one that breathes a renewed belief back into the club, the fanbase and relishes the challenge of getting the club back to where it belongs.
Rather than cement our status as a League One side the new manager must raise the standards across every level of the club to ensure that we escape this league as soon as possible.