381 days ago, Sunderland played their last game in front of fans. 1200 hearty souls made the mammoth trip to Bristol Rovers on a freezing March evening to see Sunderland put in one of the worst performances in the club’s history.
The wretched performance of that night has possibly been overlooked in terms of “new lows” that the club seemed intent on setting under the disastrous leadership of Stewart Donald, due to what happened in the days, weeks, months and entire calendar year afterwards.
But more on that later.
To be honest, I had forgotten about that match, so decided to watch the highlights available to watch on Bristol Rovers’ YouTube channel, vaguely aware of us putting in a stinker but unaware of quite how truly rancid a performance it was. Normally, trying to garner the details and flow of a match from a two-minute highlight package is dodgy at best, given that you have to rely on the editing of whichever club is producing the highlights, but even so, to watch Bristol Rovers create chance after chance, with us not having a ‘highlight’ until 1 minute and 45 seconds into the video, when we were already 2-0 down, is pretty horrendous. The chance in question is a header put miles over the bar, although it’s difficult to see who the player was who actually missed the chance.
Having then gone through the BBCs live text of the game, you realise that the sitter at the back post was missed by a certain William Grigg and all you can do is blurt out a snigger, of just how ridiculous that night was. To put it into context, Bristol Rovers had won one of their previous 15 league games. Genuinely. They had scored 6 goals in their previous 11 games in all competitions yet managed to score freely against a manager whose main strength was supposedly his side’s defending.
The goals were utterly laughable when you consider what Parky set his teams out to do, and even though Rovers’ first goal looks like a good passage of play combined with a good turn and finish from Johnson Clarke-Harris, this was still a Rovers team that was in utter freefall, who managed to look like Bayern Munich for that goal, due to our inept defending, with Ozturk, in particular, turning slower that that cargo ship stuck in Suez canal.
The second was also pitiful, not necessarily because of how we gave away a completely needless penalty, but the look of sheer dejection and inevitability on the face of Max Power after the ref pointed to the spot following his ridiculous handball in the 75th minute. Whilst it was a stonewall pen, Max Power under Lee Johnson would at least have had a little bit of a go at the ref before trying to gee up his teammates. The rest of the side also looked utterly beaten, a world away from the reaction we saw in the last 15 minutes away at Crewe a few weeks ago.
What made that performance at the Memorial Stadium even worse is that that result meant that we finished the season outside of the playoffs, due to the ridiculous points per game decision that the EFL made regarding League One and League Two. Justifiably, fans were angry at how the season ended, meaning that anger at Parkinson and Donald was diluted in terms of what it would have been had the season finished normally. That result and performance, therefore, has been largely forgotten about in the context of the EFLs decision, which was lucky for Parkinson, given the lack of quality and spine that the team showed that night.
Just over a year on and picture has completely changed. A new owner, manager and director of football with progressive footballing ideas have taken charge and the future now looks exciting. Even if we don’t get promoted, (which would obviously still be gutting), we seem to have a longer-term plan with the finances and know-how to successfully carry it out.
However, had Covid-19 not existed, and it be fair to wonder whether that game (especially after the Gillingham collapse days before) would have led to a slump which would have seen us finish outside the playoffs. So, if we struggle a bit this weekend and maybe don’t look as fluid as we should but still get the points, then remember that match in 2020 and just how far we have come as a club since then.