For us Sunderland supporters, the saying ‘false dawn’ has become a rather familiar one.
The initial honeymoon aside, the change of ownership which brought Stewart Donald to the helm has not swept away the eternal negativity hanging over the club. Play-off final heartache did not inspire the 100-point campaign we were then promised. The points-per-game debacle which sent Wycombe Wanderers on their merry way to the Championship has not triggered League One’s giant into the vengeance campaign we so desperately craved. We once more find ourselves in a familiar position – needing to muster some optimism from somewhere that some day soon, our great club will get tired of being trodden on and will stand up and be counted once more.
The sacking of Phil Parkinson was endorsed by large swathes of the fanbase. It isn’t hard to see why. Having led Sunderland to their worst-ever league finish, Parkinson tried to change approach – The Lads became nastier, more physical and more defensively minded, grinding out numerous one goal successes. When the inevitable happened, things got ugly. Simply put, League One defenders, if you wait long enough, will always make mistakes. So, the clean sheets vanished.
The turning point was a comprehensive 3-1 home beating off Portsmouth this October. Humiliations have been abundant in recent years, and while this wasn’t one of them, it did mirror what was arguably Sunderland’s worst day at this level: the 5-4 home defeat at the hands of Coventry in April 2019.
That day, the Sky Blues turned up with the magic ingredient for winning on Wearside: pace. So, when winger Marcus Harness lined up centrally for Pompey 18 months later, it was somewhat disturbing to see a similar level of haplessness to deal with mobility and intent in the red and white ranks. Ultimately, Parkinson’s Sunderland were slow – with and without the ball – and to stand any chance of escaping this wretched league, he had to go. The final nails in his coffin were home humiliation by the MK Dons – with Cameron Jerome (yes, he still plays) amongst the goals – and points dropped late on at Fleetwood Town and Doncaster Rovers.
Thanks for that, Phil….
Cue the new era and enter Kyril Louis-Dreyfus. The son of the man behind a disgraced Marseille’s revitalisation around the turn of the century, the 23-year-old’s naming as the likely new majority shareholder at the club has done some serious eyebrow raising. Fears of the seriousness of such a young owner were inevitable, but if one thing about this young man is clear, it’s that lack of funds will not be an issue.
It has transpired that Dreyfus had a hand in the appointment of the man to lead this latest recovery, former Bristol City boss Lee Johnson. Johnson arrives as head coach, not manager, working under the supervision of Kristjaan Speakman, the club’s new sporting director. While many Sunderland fans now insist on having opinions that reach way beyond the football pitch, at the base of it all, the only two things most football supporters want are three points on a Saturday afternoon and for them to come in something resembling an entertaining manner.
So, instead of commenting on Donald and Dreyfus, it seems more my place to comment on Lee Johnson, a man who took Bristol City from a Championship bottom-half team, always looking over their shoulders, to one starting each season trying to break the play-offs, ultimately targeting the Premier League – doing so playing fluid, attractive football, demonstrated to the country in their gallant 2018 League Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester City. Back then, nobody thought Johnson’s next job would be with a mid-table League One side.
Sunderland’s home defeat to rock-bottom Wigan was arguably the worst of the season, but Johnson had been in the job just two hours at kick-off. Last Tuesday’s Papa John’s Trophy (yes, you heard, the Papa John’s Trophy) win at Oldham means nothing at all, but the 4-0 away victory at Lincoln was a very promising result. It’s incumbent on the players to prove themselves to Johnson- after the disgraceful showing against Wigan, Johnson has nothing to prove to them.
It is difficult not to be numb or ambivalent when a new hope arrives on Wearside, and Johnson’s appointment did not immediately bring around those who invariably dreamt of Roy Keane, Kevin Phillips or Big Sam being our knight in shining armour, returning to rescue us in our darkest hour. Having said that, Johnson is young, has had success and the arrival of Speakman suggests he has been identified as part of a project. It has been said a hundred times before, but if Johnson gets it right, and the fans are allowed back, at this level (and in the Championship too) Sunderland have the potential to be unstoppable. It’s time, yet again, for the biggest beast in this footballing abyss to get its act together and start climbing.
Image: Freethinker via Creative Commons.