It's that time again, the time when we gather some of ALS' regular writers to discuss current SAFC-related news and events, and to gather their thoughts on the current situation of the club. This time, we got together Sobs, Michael Conroy and Thomas Thornton to give their views on our club.

What’s gone wrong?

Sobs thinks that there's plenty positives and these last two games are a blip, "How’s the season gone so far? As one Phil once said, and another Phil should perhaps be saying - Take A Look At Me Now. The only things that have been constant this season have been our keeper, our formation, Bailey Wright, the attendance, and the apparent furlough of Aiden McGeady. Being perfectly honest, our opening fixture gave me serious grounds for optimism, as we comprehensively outplayed Hull, a team that had just dropped from the Championship. In retrospect, the fact that we lost, albeit on penalties, should have had me being a little more wary of our prospects, but hey – I like to look on the bright side. That game established our defensive system - one that, barring Burge’s first minute rush of blood to the head in our first League game, steadfastly kept opposing forwards out of our box and left the aforementioned Burge with little to do other than take the odd cross in the following four League games. If you don’t concede, you don’t lose – a pretty obvious statement which is probably tattooed on Parky’s chest and displayed on posters around the home dressing room at the SoL, the team coach, and all around our training facilities. Unfortunately, if you don’t score, you don’t win, and while our problem over the last two seasons has been scoring one and then letting one in, we simply hadn’t been scoring the number of goals that our possession has warranted. If you don’t shoot, you don’t score – yet another mantra often repeated in football – and our goals per chance ratio hasn’t been that clever. Put this down to the man or men in the scoring positions or the service they’ve been getting, the facts are that too much responsibility lies with the defence keeping a clean sheet. This was perfectly shown against a woeful Crewe side, who’s most dangerous attempt on goal came when scoring the only goal of the game – past their own keeper. When the defence has a less than perfect afternoon, we don’t have the firepower to outgun anything other than weak opposition. Against Portsmouth, who basically repeated their overpowering job from the end of last season at their place, we were quite comfortably kept at bay. Against Rochdale, a team of teenage loanees and buys from the National League, we only just managed to score as many as them."

Michael Conroy thinks Sunderland may have been overperforming and the defeat at home to Pompey and disappointing trip to Rochdale was us being brought back down to earth, "Maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe the question should be whether or not we were over performing on certain levels before returning to form. The draw against Bristol Rovers was hardly a showcase of defending because let’s face it once they got that early goal they just sat it out in their own half for the most part. Next was Oxford who everyone said would be tough opponents preseason but they were impotent to say the least and are currently sat second bottom of the league. A 0-0 away to Charlton looks like an achievement of sorts but then you realise they are the only team in the top 11 who are still in single figures for goals scored. Peterborough is looking like a better result every week though. They’re scoring goals and haven’t lost a game since they blanked against us. The worrying thing for me in the opening fixtures was never really about the clean sheets though. In both the Swindon and Crewe matches a more clinical team would have been blitzing them with a forward line which, given the standard we’re at, should be banging in a lot more goals than they are. That’s the reason we didn’t beat Bristol Rovers. I know we beat Swindon and Crewe but it was far closer and far more of a slog than it needed to be. If we hammer them and then go into the Portsmouth game the confidence is high. The changes at the back have certainly not helped though. We have been on the receiving end of suspensions and injuries already this season and I think that may have rocked the defence a bit. They all seemed to know what they were doing before Portsmouth, they were well organised and it just went to pieces in that game. Having spotted what was going on, and Parkinson must have done because it couldn’t be more obvious if it was wearing nipple tassles and dancing the macarena, O’Nien was struggling against Portsmouth and with established defenders on the bench he should have been switched. He had been fine in that position against weaker opposition but he was all over the place. In a stretched back line with experience and strength attacking you, you cannot have a wobbly wheel and I think that’s what happened there. As for Rochdale, I have to confess I’ve only seen the goals and didn’t watch the match but the goals point to that same disorganised defence. They knew their jobs a couple of weeks ago, that has gone now."

Thomas Thornton reckons that it is down to lack of recruitment, "I know the club haven't got a huge budget for signings and the salary cap obviously doesn't help either but I think our recruitment has been poor - let's face it, we have a worse squad than the one we came down with and just don't seem to have a natural goal scorer or any consistent creative talent. We've missed out on so many cracking free transfers and players proven at this level, for very small fees. We started off fairly well but was that false hope? I don't know, we certainly had a canny run but I don't think it was ever going to last for longer than it did, it seems to be the same old, same old every season. George Dobson was very poor against Rochdale the other evening and Parkinson reckons he had a good game? Not sure what he was watching but it just emphasised the lack of option this season, something that has held us back previously in this division when games have come thick and fast but this season, it's an even more hectic schedule and I just don't think we have the squad capacity or quality to seriously challenge for promotion. The watertight defence is now gaping open, conceding four goals in two games, just days apart from one another, we have more injuries than I can count and a system that just didn't seem to work against Pompey or Rochdale. We looked bright and creative against Oxford, we should've buried Charlton first half and there's been other good examples of standout performances such as Swindon and Crewe but that needs to be consistent and I just cannot see that happening."

How do you fix it?

Sobs thinks that we need an out and out, proven goalscorer who can change our fortunes but doesn't think there's one at the club, "The team that night at Spotland. Up front, we had Wyke, who, despite having a better career goals per game ratio than Emile Heskey (go on, have a look), simply isn’t a goal machine. Neither is the man who replaced him, Danny Graham. Both are big strong hold-up forwards, but neither is a shoot-on-sight merchant. Left on the bench was the enigma that is Will Grigg, the closest thing we have to a goal-scoring forward.  That was the part of his CV that we bought him on the strength of, but one that he’s just not replicated, which has left the manager with the dilemma of whether to persist or give up on him. Given that one of our constants has been our formation, there’s not much room for a sniffer behind the target man, but perhaps giving Grigg one of the two places behind the target man is an option – or even give him the job up top and see what happens.  Let’s face it, he’ll never score from the bench. One of the other options in the supporting forward role is Aiden O’Brien, who’s similarity to another SAFC player goes beyond sharing a first name. All fancy footwork and trickery, he looks more like a Poundland McGeady by the day – but what of the original Aiden? Talk of off-field behaviour has been rife for the last year, and the fact that we’re still paying him – quite possibly more than any other player at the club – and that no club will take him on because of his age and presumably wages, is a situation that the club simply can’t afford.  I suspect he’d jump at the chance to get his boots back on, so it’s time for the manager, or whoever it is at the club he’s fallen foul of, to bite the bullet and eat a bit of humble pie (I’ll provide the custard or gravy – I never did work out if humble pie is sweet or savoury). Let’s get something for our money, and we all know that on his day he’s one of the best players in the division. Absent at Spotland were Scowen and Leadbitter, which was a bit of a surprise as the former had dropped in alongside Power quite well, and the latter had been playing (that awful pass against Pompey apart) his best football since returning to the club. Rumours of a fall out with the manager did the rounds after the game, which they tend to after unexplained absences from the team, but should there be any truth in these rumours, such disagreements are the last thing any football club, least of all us, need. Their absence meant that the shape of the side was affected, as neither Power nor Dobson was sure when to swap roles and either hang deep or move forward. Ah, League One. The Third Division. The longer we’re in it, the more of a third division team we’ll become, and more importantly the more of a third division club we’ll become – a likelihood made all the more possible by the absence of any spectators.  Unfortunately, with the owner having decided to relinquish his position as chairman without installing a successor, and the arrival of a CEO who has to alternate his statements  between upsetting the fans and apologising for upsetting the fans, there seems no drive to prevent this transition to a third division club becoming permanent. We can bawl on all we want about us deserving better as fans, but the fact is that w, as a club, have no right to be anything other than what we currently are, and we’ll continue that transition until the club is sold. Speaking of which, the silence from the club on the subject has been deafening. The 'period of exclusivity' with a potential buyer expired months ago, and not a word has been forthcoming form the club, leaving us with the occasional shout from energy drink nutjob Billy Storey that he’s still in for us. Ha’way, Jim Rodwell, say summat! How does the manager fix things? If I knew that, I’d be a football manager. Despite our recent relapses, there’s not much wrong at the back, even if O’Nien’s game at wingback or centre half is 70% enthusiasm.  Find a way to tweak our system to create more direct scoring chances  is the key – I know we don’t have a Super Kev type in the squad, but let’s be pouncing when the ball’s on the ground in the opposition’s box."

Despite a few teething problems, Michael Conroy still reckons Sunderland are on track and can win promotion this season with a bit of training and ground work, "It’s hard to know how to fix it now to be honest. We’ve brought in Dion Sanderson and we will have to see what he brings to the back line but we really need to settle players into positions. Like I say, a few injuries have seen us go into a bit of disarray at the back and we’ve gone from not conceding a goal in open play to conceding four in two. That may be a confidence thing as well I guess but there’s clearly some training ground work to be done. I think there’s something about communication in there as well, Flanagan may not be the greatest of defenders but if you watch him he’s constantly chirping at the back. Defenders need that if they’re going to be organised; a little bit of leadership to help them concentrate so they’re not giving Rochdale players free headers. When fully fit and confident I still maintain that this squad is good enough to go up. In terms of experience there are no excuses, in terms of hunger there should be no excuses. Some of these lads have been with us since we started off in League One with the expectation of promotion with a big club, surely they must be fed up being stuck down here as well. That needs to be harnessed and used in a positive way. That’s down to the manager and coaches but charisma doesn’t exactly pour out of the Sunderland dugout. That’s not Parkinson’s character and that’s fine, but I hope there is someone geeing the players up because sometimes they look a little fragmented as a group."

Thomas Thornton isn't too sure on how this can be fixed, although suggests maybe switching up the system, "Honestly, I'm not sure on what can be done, I'd love to have the answers but I can just see us establishing ourselves as a League 1 club, trapped here for seasons to come, unless we eventually get sold to someone who actually knows what they're doing and can financially support us. Phil Parkinson is going to be the manager, whether we like it or not and the transfer window is now closed so we need to work with what we have. Is it time to switch up the formation? Is it time to completely change the starting XI? Give some fringe players a chance? Who knows, that's probably why I'm not a football manager and just merely a fan with an opinion! I'm not sure we can get promoted this season, I'm not sure if that is my usual pessimism, as people keep telling me, or if I'm being harsh but realistic. I'd like to see more of Aiden O'Brien, I'd like to maybe see a bit more creative play but most of all some consistency, something we rarely see at our football club."

Starting XI

Despite not being sure who can bag for us, Sobs reckons a sole striker supported by wide men may be the answer and the key to the SAFC line up, "Burge, O’Nien, Willis, Wright, Sanderson (early days, I know, but I was generally impressed), Hume, Gooch, Leadbitter, Power, Scowen,  

Maguire and Grigg up top. Subs: R. Matthews, Diamond, Flanagan, O’Brien, Wyke, Graham, Embleton, Conor McLaughlin and Flanagan."

Michael Conroy thinks Phil Parkinson is left with some tough choices and a dilemma on who to play in key positions such as up front and right wing back, "Assuming everyone is available? I have to go back to that Hull game in the cup really because I thought we looked excellent and was confident that either we were winning the league or Hull were getting relegated. I’ve changed both those views now. I know we lost that game on penalties but that first half was excellent. So in terms of formation that’s what I would go with. Looking at that line up there isn’t all that much I would change there either. I would swap Leadbitter in for Dobson which perhaps isn’t as obvious a choice as you would think if you watched that Hull game because he played really well in that anchoring midfield role. He sprayed some lovely passes around and gave Power the space and the safety to go buzzing around the hole behind the forward. It was really effective. The reason I would switch him out though is on two counts. Firstly, that was one game, I’ve seen plenty where he was nowhere near that standard. Secondly Leadbitter has been one of our top performers this season and is more suited to that position given his experience and intelligent reading of the game (when he’s not passing the ball to Pompey forwards on the edge of the box that is). The other switch is one which I didn’t actually envisage I would make after that game. Aiden O’Brien looked lively and hungry against Hull and I thought, with a bit of focus, could go on to be a decent signing for us. What you can’t argue with, however, is the fact that love him or loathe him, Wyke is scoring goals. So for me Wyke has to come in for O’Brien. You’re then left with the decision about whether to go with Grigg up front or not. It’s a strange one with Grigg, I think most of us have this faint glimmer of hope that it’s just been a sticky spell and once the trickle of goals starts it will turn into a torrent. That’s why I am going to stick with him, hope rather than evidence. I’m in two minds about O’Nien but I am about McLaughlin as well so I’ll stick with O'Nien for now. That makes it: Burge, O'Nien, Hume, Willis, Wright, Flanagan, Leadbitter, Maguire, Power, Grigg, Wyke. Subs are difficult because there are players I’ve forgotten we even had already, is Feeney injured!? Obviously Remi Matthews, after that - let’s have some youth in there with Diamond and Sanderson just to see what they can do, then Scowen, Gooch, as he’s a potential game changer, Graham for the same reason and I guess Conor McLaughlin in case I change my mind about O'Nien."

Thomas Thornton reckons we should maybe look to a more attacking formation and go for a classic 4-3-3 rather than a three/foive at the back, "Burge in goal, O'Nien, Willis, Wright, Hume, Gooch and Maguire on the wings, Power and Scowen in midfield with Wyke up top and Aiden O'Brien just in behind him. As for subs, I'd say Remi Matthews (obviously), Flanagan, Conor McLaughlin, Leadbitter, McGeady and Danny Graham."

McGeady, use him, or let him rot?

Michael Conroy thinks we might as well give him a go if we cannot get rid of him, after all he is apparently the highest paid player at the club, by far, "Play him or let him rot? Well given I’ve just left him out of my starting squad you can tell how much I’m thinking of him. I don’t wish him any ill to be honest. Who knows what really happens in the dressing room. Footballers can be very cliquey and many of them do have a natural arrogance to them. That’s not a criticism necessarily, to believe you’re capable of doing something you do need to be a little bit arrogant. It’s not like he thought he was Bendtner or anything is it!? "

"He was our best player, actually that’s probably a debatable point depending on which match you went to watch him in. He was definitely the best footballer at the club and watching his goals at Wembley showcases both his skill and his determination. There was talk of him being targeted for over the top challenges by opposition that season and he struggled through injuries when he probably should have been rested. The fact that he was a target for those tackles tells you everything you need to know about the regard in which he was held. But we’re two years down the line now and I have no idea if he still has it in the tank. I recognise the need to keep discipline etc at the club and if, for whatever reason, the coaches and managers see him as a negative effect on the first team then they’re probably right to marginalise him; it’s the easiest thing to do. The hardest thing would be to talk to him, get an understanding and get him firing positively again. It’s what a good leader would do. In actual fact if you listen to his version of events around the Lewis Morgan story it sounds a lot more reasonable. The fact that Morgan said everyone was scared of him is more of a worry I guess, although I’m fairly certain Ozturk would have been able to swat it away quite easily. Maybe he’s marginalised because he’s run out of steam, or he’s not fit, or whatever it is. The fact is no other club has come in for him and we’re stuck with some big wages. If we can get any value out of those wages then it’s worth a try in my opinion."

On the McGeady situation, Sobs was short, but sweet! "If we can't get rid they he should earn his high wages and play. On the bench at least."

Thomas Thornton also thinks that if he's in the squad then he should be used, even if his heart isn't in the right place, "Let's face it, he was our best player when we got to the play-off final, he produced some real magic that season, from his goal at Wembley against Pompey to complete game changing moments which other players couldn't even dream of doing. Yes he is one of the laziest players I've ever seen don a Sunderland shirt but he is one of the few who could do absolutely nothing for 90 minutes and then pull a rabbit out of a hat in injury time and win us the game. At the end of the day, we're paying his wages, which aren't exactly cheap so we might as well use him, Parkinson needs to put his personal differences behind (if that is even the case) and get him back in and around the first team and hopefully he can be that creative spark we need, even if it is just off the bench."