I wonder if Sunderland kept the receipt on manager Phil Parkinson? The 52-year-old was relinquished from his duties on Sunday and there was an enormous sense of inevitability to it ever since Parkinson set foot through the door at the Stadium of Light 13 months ago. No matter what trade or industry you are in, sometimes there is just a case of a face not fitting and this was a classic example of that from the get-go.
For whatever reasons Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven prophesised when hiring the former Bolton Wanderers manager in October 2019, they simply have not come to fruition. It is true, Parkinson has had success in the lower echelons of the English game; his triumphs with Colchester United in 2006, Bradford City in 2013 and Wanderers in 2017 are all respected appraisals.
Yet Sunderland and Parkinson never lent itself to a duo which would blossom and prove successful. From the moment Jack Ross was sacked having missed out on promotion back into the Championship at the first attempt, and a sluggish start to a second season in League One, the football club needed an injection of life, something to uplift the city. Sadly, Parkinson was not it. Instead he characterised how far the club had fallen.
For all those accolades can suggest he was a worthy candidate for a club seeking promotion from the third tier of English football, Sunderland still has a vast amount of credit in the bank to consider itself as a club above this level of football – something which Parkinson has little reputation and recognition for. That’s not to say other managers have such experience or pedigree, but with Parkinson it was very much a case of knowing the limitations.
There is a fine line between arrogance and reality – a line which many supporters of other teams at this level will loathe Sunderland fans for – but for all that Sunderland deserve to be in League One for past failings, the club should unanimously be considered above this level in the same way Leeds United, Leicester City, Southampton and Wolverhampton Wanderers were.
Before the club’s relegation from the Premier League in 2017, Sunderland fans had experienced a generation of their club finishing no lower than third in the Championship – or alternatively no less than being the 23rd best team in the country – a position which slid to 59th under Parkinson at one stage.
Throughout the club’s rich history, only once has it found itself at this level in the football pyramid – where they escaped at the first time of asking. So, let’s not pretend Sunderland fans are above their stations for demanding better than to be languishing outside of the Play-Offs in League One. If the club continues to moulder at this level for say another decade, then it can be argued that this is the level of the club.
But for now, whenever Sunderland are in League One, anything outside of the top two places in the league table must be considered a failure. In essence, anything outside of competing for promotion to the Premier League, when not in it, would be considered concerning based on the club’s recent history but that is already a mentality that has had to be squashed.
It is this which makes the guises by some in the nationwide media to question the most recent sackings in Sunderland’s history of Ross and Parkinson a frustrating pill to swallow.
Since being relegated to League One Sunderland have yet to clearly threaten the automatic promotion places despite being acquitted with the best tools in the division in terms of finances, facilities and several players. Each time both Ross and Parkinson have had chances to capitalise on slip ups from rivals to assert themselves into leading pack, they have missed their opportunities and have constantly had to play catch-up through the cancelling of games during international breaks meaning neither has really established the club as a frontrunner in the division.
If you look at the league table when Ross was dismissed, the club in fifth, and when Parkinson has been sacked, the club eighth just five points behind second placed Peterborough United with a game in hand, you could be forgiven for questioning the hysteria. Yet if you analyse performances and trends throughout Sunderland’s stint in League One to date both sackings were justified. At no stage has Parkinson threatened to get Sunderland promoted automatically despite the close points proximity. There have been a myriad of differing performances, of which only two or three at the beginning of the year against Wycombe Wanderers and Lincoln City could you throw your hat on and claim ‘that’s what a promotion winning team looks like. Of course, there are alternative ways in which to win games of football. The beginning of this season hinted at Sunderland and Parkinson ‘finding a way to win’ as they ground out three points against promotion contenders such as Oxford United and Peterborough. Defensively resilient while just about managing to score at the other end. Unconventionally getting the job done so-to-speak.
After victory over Ipswich Town in early November, Parkinson had statistically led Sunderland to their best start at this level with 21 points from 10 games. But there was always a concern that over reliance on defensive shut-outs would eventually catch up with them and that games would need to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and dominated akin to those two fixtures in January during Parkinson’s purple patch. There was always a feeling that the wins were papering over cracks having been won via late penalty decisions or red cards in favour.
Unfortunately, those commanding displays have rarely surfaced during both the second half of Ross’ tenure and the majority of Parkinson’s reign which has resulted in too many dropped points and failing to really challenge where, quite simply, the Play-Offs are not the target for Sunderland at this level and there should be no shame or guilt in admitting that.
If you aren’t threatening the upper reaches of the division at this level then you at least have to have something to fall back on; an investable character or a progressive, entertaining brand of football – conceivably with the integrating of some of the club’s youth talent. Unfortunately for Parkinson, he has hasn’t delivered of any front.
Realistically, Parkinson has been on a stay of execution since Boxing Day last year where a goalless draw with Bolton ought to have been his swan song having won just two of his first 15 games in charge across all competitions with defeats to League Two Scunthorpe and Leicester City Under-23’s being the nadir compounding an horrendous two month period for the club.
But in recent weeks his demeanour in post-match press conferences, his excuses – climaxing with Friday’s suggestion of a slope on Fleetwood’s Highbury pitch being a cause for a poor second half display – and his continuous erroneous decision making in the dug-out with players out of position and substitutes, or lack thereof, have resulted in arguably the most unanimous agreement from the fanbase over a sacking there has ever been.
From the very beginning Parkinson failed to set pulses racing. It was an underwhelming appointment. Was that his fault? Absolutely not. Did he have the opportunity to swing the pendulum in his favour with supporters? Absolutely.
The renaissance in the New Year Parkinson did yield almost justified Donald’s decision not to bring down the axe on Boxing Day, but the damage was already done. Despite a run of eight wins in 12 games at the beginning of the year another slump before the Coronavirus pandemic ended the season meant the club missed out on the Play-Offs.
It was the club’s worst ever finish, period. How can that not be criticised? Where does this leave the football club? A barrage more of unanswered questions, no doubt. The problems at the club are entrenched much deeper than the managerial hot-seat, but that doesn’t mean this wasn’t the correct decision.
It’s ok to expect this club to compete for the top two at this level – it should still be the bare minimum. The badge on the front of the shirt gives you no divine right to get promotion, but there comes a point where it means a little bit more and should be stuck out with pride.
We’re Sunderland, in the third division. It’s got to be better.