Phil Parkinson takes a big swig of water before tossing the bottle aside. He folds his arms, taking a deep breath in the process, glances towards the North Stand goal and he hopes. He hopes that Grant Leadbitter can find the decisive cross of the football at the 12th time of asking from a corner. He hopes that somebody, anybody in a red and white shirt, can time their run to perfection, can get their head or any part of their anatomy on the ball, and find the back of the Bolton Wanderers net to give Sunderland their first win since November 2.
The corner arrives, and is dealt with consummate ease by the Bolton defence. The ball is sent skywards for what seems like the millionth time of the game, and after a few painful ticks of the clock later referee, Ross Joyce, blows the full-time whistle. Boos reverberate around the Stadium of Light along with chants of ‘We want Parky out’ as the crowd of 33,821 disperse into the chilly Boxing Day haze on Wearside.
Parkinson’s head hung. A puff of the cheeks was followed by the niceties towards Keith Hill and his backroom staff in the away dug out before he sloped off down the tunnel. Will it be for the last time? No, it would seem, but it should be. This latest dreadful performance and result has Sunderland 15th in the League One table, or 59th in the football pyramid if you are to take a broader glance at things. It’s a nadir that supporters are no longer willing to accept. Where apathy and acceptance has littered the Stadium of Light like the empty crisp packets and other rubbish swirling in the wind; anger, disdain and action appear to have replaced them.
It is a culmination not just of the last two months but of the past several years at Sunderland. There is only so many times a fanbase can be battered and broken, humiliated and beaten, kicked when they’re down, lied to and given false hope. Having chanted for the removal of Parkinson following the Burton disaster it seemed like there was only one outcome, but still that outcome is not forthcoming.
On Friday evening #DonaldOut trended on social media as thousands of supporters have decided to look beyond Parkinson in the dugout and instead go for the head of the proverbial snake in the boardroom, Stewart Donald, with the main supporters fanzines unanimous in their stance of wanting Donald to leave his position.
While Donald will argue his tenure has not been a complete failure, the last two months in particular have been spectacularly wretched; the appointment of Parkinson the catalyst of the fans disapproval and resulting revolt. Beyond the face value of his appointment, there was some substance to the decision. Parkinson is seen by most as an adequate League One manager. But this is not an adequate League One football club – at least not one that should be given its prestige, its facilities, its fanbase, its history. But this is what happens following years of mismanagement and catastrophic decision making. This isn’t an out-of-the-blue anomaly, this is an elongated demise – like a terminal illness eating away by the day.
There may not be a quick fix, but Parkinson clearly was not what was needed for a club whose ego has been perpetually bruised. Having missed out on promotion, a slow start to the season which cost Jack Ross his job required a shot in the arm, something to galvanise and rejuvenate the place. The consensus was that Sunderland weren’t far away, they just needed a little fine tuning, a little push. What has happened has been the complete opposite. Parkinson has steered the club from sixth in the division and probable Play-Off candidates to the bottom half of the league and more likely a relegation battle. Quite simply, it has been and is completely unacceptable.
But with Parkinson seemingly content at guiding the club down the division, his job remarkably appears to be intact under Donald. “Not ideal,” he said of the chants towards his sacking and favoured replacement, Kevin Phillips, after Boxing Day’s draw, before some classic self-defensive fire fighting comments about his record and the historical issues at the club beyond his role along with the archetypal insinuation of the fans unreasonable expectations.
Nonsense. If Sunderland fans expectations and attitude in the Stadium of Light are unreasonable then the club should pack up and call it a day. It may be one thing to have the audacity to expect promotion from League One, a league the club has only ever graced its presence with twice before this season, but to be languishing in the nether regions of the division with the same issues which plagued the brutal Premier League and Championship relegation campaigns is more than meriting of being a tad vexed. It appears as though the same mistakes and concerns are happening, just at a lower level.
So, what now? On this current trajectory the club will no longer be seen as a sleeping giant, but as a knocked out has been who may wash up at a non-league ground near you in the future. There is absolutely nothing stopping this club from continuing to find another trap door in which to escape through just when you think it can’t get worse. The financial concerns at the club coax you into acknowledging the demise and ultimate death of Bury. Why not Sunderland? This is a tailspin harbouring fatal damage.
The first step must surely be the dismissal of Parkinson. His decision to replace the injured Tom Flanagan at centre back with left back Laurens De Bock to maintain his five at the back shape when trying to convert three points against the leagues basement club in the closing stages on Thursday should have been enough for Donald to afford Parkinson the same treatment Simon Grayson was given following his draw with Bolton two years ago. Throw in his record to date and the ostracising of Aiden McGeady and there aren’t many reasons to support his staying on.
Perhaps Donald would have earned back a modicum of respect from some sections of the fans had he come out and admitted the change hasn’t worked, that Parkinson was the wrong appointment. After all, not every manager is suited to every club. No honeymoon period lasts forever, just look at Quique Sanchez Flores’ return to Watford, but Parkinson and Sunderland never made it out of the alter before divorce papers should have been filed.
With Parkinson out of the way, a trip to Doncaster on Sunday followed by a visit to Fleetwood does little to entice the possibility of a resurgence given the club’s away form this season but at least it will give the 4,000 in the away end on Sunday and the 1,000 on New Year’s Day that little bit of hope they can’t stand. Because surely it can’t get any worse than this?
Whichever way you look at Sunderland’s situation, Donald must act now. Regardless of the ulterior motive in some quarters, one of the few things Sunderland have is its fanbase. While on paper 33,821 is an exceptional crowd in League One, it was some 13,000 shy of last years’ Boxing Day total, with crowds dwindling on a weekly basis and season ticket holders opting to stay in the pub rather than head over to the game. Supporters are already voting with their feet at the situation and now they are making their voices heard.
The romanticism of 12-months ago couldn’t be further away for Donald who may now fear the walls are caving in around him following the resignation of Charlie Methven and the ever-growing fan unrest. Whether the solution is removing himself from the situation and handing the reigns over to the FFP group, or most certainly the manager, the fans have spoken. The point of no return has been reached and something has got to give.