Phil Parkinson celebrates one year in charge of Sunderland this afternoon – the use of the word ‘celebrate’ in that context somehow just doesn’t seem to sit right but we’re here, nevertheless.
On the pitch and off the pitch, inside of football and outside of football, the last 12 months have been like no other and not in a particularly enjoyable manner. It feels much longer.
From “Jack Dross” to “Phil the thrill,” just how do you sum up the last year on Wearside? There are a few choice words that would suffice but then that wouldn’t make for very much copy.
The prologue to this chapter in Sunderland’s history comes with the sacking of Jack Ross a little over a year ago. When Ross was dismissed from his post not many in red and white actively disagreed with the decision. An inconsistent start, parallel to the previous season of too many “close but not close enough’s” was sufficient evidence to move the Scot on despite being one of the more accepted managers in recent memory.
To say Parkinson’s arrival was underwhelming would be a monumental understatement. While the list of potential suitors was far from eye-catching, Parkinson’s name was dismissed en masse. Daniel Stendel had managed promotion with Barnsley, the common consent being they were the best side to visit the Stadium of Light the previous season, Nigel Pearson had the pedigree, Kevin Phillips had the romanticism while Gareth Ainsworth – seemingly a perennial front runner – had the portfolio of punching above his weight with Wycombe Wanderers.
Each offered a unique alternative. Each offered something a little intriguing if not flattering. Each wasn’t Parkinson. And yet it was Parkinson who was instilled in this most poisoned of chalices with owner Stewart Donald highlighting how his record and references stood out from the rest. It meant an already disenchanted fan base were dealt another crushing blow.
But such is a football supporter’s duty, Parkinson was afforded a little rope as grievances were aimed upstairs at Donald initially.
A 1-0 defeat to would-be-manager Ainsworth had all the hallmarks of ‘classic Sunderland’ before a rousing victory over Tranmere displayed signs which had been missing in the opening two months of the season under Ross. A new manager bounce perhaps?
Unfortunately not, as that is as good as it got for Parkinson with the next 12 games in all competitions yielding just one win. Three of those games were against Gillingham who came out on top twice as Parkinson declared “if we had got a point, we would have taken that,” after the league defeat at The Priestfield Stadium. For many it was the straw to break the camels back and demand Parkinson’s tenure be over before he had finished arranging the particulars on his desk and who could argue with it? From the Premier League to playing eight defensive minded players and accepting a draw at Gillingham. It simply wasn’t acceptable.
Those who hadn’t already been pushed over the precipice then were on Boxing Day as the Christmas cheer on Wearside quickly deteriorated into a nightmare befitting a Dickens novel. A stalemate with Bolton Wanderers whereby Parkinson opted to replace an injured Tom Flanagan with Laurens De Bock – out of position – to maintain his system instead of adding another attacking outlet led to the bemusement in the Roker End quickly turning into vociferous anger.
Phillips was the name on many a fans lips – he’d even make a number of appearances in a box at the Stadium of Light in the following weeks to stir up interest. Just how close Parkinson was to losing his job on Boxing Day night and just whether or not Phillips was primed to jump into the dug-out we will never know, but the former should certainly have happened.
But that draw with Wanderers ignited a response. Supporters groups united to demand change aiming to cut the head of the snake as opposed to just a managerial change.
Remarkably Parkinson was still in a job at the Keepmoat Stadium days later and serendipitously stumbled upon a winning formula. It would be a formula that would allow him to clamber his way back up the thread in which his job was hanging by as Sunderland entered 2020 taking 26 from 33 points to inexplicably climb back into the promotion race.
There were even chants for Parkinson from the Roker End such was the upturn in form coupled with the old adage of “It doesn’t take much to please us.”
While the season petered out before the Coronavirus officially ended it there was still a lot of disgruntlement. Eighth in League One and a third successive season at this level to look forward to; upturn in form or not, Parkinson failed with the job he was brought in to do.
With Sunderland fans being starved of watching their team for seven months and emotions moderated, it’s hard to decipher just where the pendulum is now with regards Parkinson. A solid, if unspectacular, start to the new season will have helped nudge it back towards a more neutral stance than a danger zone from Parkinson’s point of view – perhaps the lack of supporters will benefit him in that respect.
There is no doubting Parkinson hasn’t exactly had a fair crack of the whip with the superfluous tribulations at boardroom level doing little to aid his job.
One thing you can’t accuse Parkinson of is hiding away from the limelight. His CV may not be as illustrious as Donald suggests it is, but he is an experienced head in football, he knows how often his head is on the guillotine at the Stadium of Light – but it is also why he no doubt jumped at the opportunity to take the job 12 months ago in the first place.
And yet you can’t escape there is a sense of inevitability about Parkinson’s tenure on Wearside. For whatever reason there doesn’t seem to be a sense of longevity to it. Do supporters really expect Parkinson to be the one to succeed with Sunderland, to turn around the oil tanker that has been referred to ad nauseam?
He has come a long way since admitting he would have taken a draw at Gillingham and there are green shots of something that isn’t entirely negative for Sunderland so far this season; the defence look extremely solid, the team are hard to beat and wins have been ground out against rivals. But whether those shoots can or will grow into something special remains a big question.
It’s been another rocky year for Sunderland, with highs no greater than a Milton Nunez head band and the lows sinking to depths never before seen or imagined.
There is a long way to go before this football club has everyone back on side resembling something healthier than a basket case but Parkinson has perhaps moved himself into the territory of “there are more important things to sort out first,” which is a credit to him whatever your thoughts are on his position. Who knows who will be in charge or where we will be this time next year.