By Luke Power
When Phil Parkinson greeted the journalists in his first press conference as Sunderland manager, he apologised for being late.
Although Parkinson probably meant nothing more than to be polite to the sea of faces and flashing cameras, you can’t help but marvel at the deeper meaning of his words; indeed, Sunderland have been waiting for a man like Parkinson for many years.
Parkinson arrives on the back of the worst season in the club’s history in terms of league position. This season is only their third ever outside the top two divisions, and the Black Cats don’t want to prowl around this garden any longer.
Not long ago, the likes of Darren Bent, Asamoah Gyan, and Jermain Defoe donned the famous red and white stripes, yet now fans groan at four 1-1 draws in the opening quarter of a League One season.
And yet, to dispel the hangover of disappointment which has hung over the club ever since Charlton Athletic beat them in the playoffs in May, a small blessing has arrived in the form of Phil Parkinson.
As far as appointments by promotion hopefuls go, Sunderland’s choice of Parkinson is a quietly impressive one.
With three promotions to his name during his managerial career, he certainly ticks the box for experience, but this isn’t all that’s needed.
After all, Simon Grayson had achieved a mighty four promotions by the time he touched down at the Stadium of Light in 2017, yet he only won three of his 18 games in charge before being sacked on Halloween. So, who is to say that Parkinson’s reign won’t be just as dreadful?
Ultimately, nobody can say for sure whether a manager is going be successful or not, but his track record singles him out as an ideal man for the job.
When Parkinson took the job at Bolton Wanderers in June 2016, the club were in a worse position than Sunderland are in currently.
Bolton were licking fresh wounds from a disastrous relegation, had lost several key players and were facing the abyss of a transfer embargo.
Parkinson, however, had an instant impact, winning his first four games, and over the course of the season he managed to transform the club. He galvanised talents like Jay Spearing and Josh Vela and even teased a ridiculous nine goals out of centre-back David Wheater, leading the Trotters to automatic promotion.
Thanks to him, Bolton were a Championship side again. But Parkinson is more than just a one-season wonder. It would be better to categorise him as an architect who plans for the long term; this is a man who has managed over 100 games at four of his five clubs with great success in most cases. But he’s also an architect who requires patience.
Take his most famous success: Bradford City. In his first season at the club, Parkinson was no revelation − the Bantams finished 18th in League Two. It was only over time that he moulded something special; promotion and a run to the League Cup final in the next season, an FA Cup quarter-final, and near-promotion to the Championship in the final years of his reign.
Not only did he help develop the Football League striking sensation that is Nakhi Wells, he also made sure his Bradford side had one of the most solid defences in League One. He eked the best out of Stephen Darby at the back and utilised the towering James Hanson up front to his full effect.
In short, Parkinson proved at Bradford that he can get the absolute best out of individual players while fostering a team cohesion that made them more than the sum of their parts. That’s something that Sunderland, so brimming with talent, have been missing until now.
It’s hard to define exactly how monumental the challenge will be. In his first game in charge, away at high-flyers Wycombe on Saturday, Parkinson’s men slumped to a 1-0 defeat and only registered a single shot on target.
Of course, it would be unfair to judge him based on that one game; he had only had one training session with the players.
But there were signs of Parkinson developing his own ideas about his team’s shape against Wycombe. He made five changes to the line-up, including handing a first league start of the season to goalkeeper Lee Burge, a decision based on the questionable form of usual first choice Jon McLaughlin.
Rewarding Duncan Watmore with a start after his goal against Grimsby in the Football League Trophy showed conviction, as Watmore has been struggling with injuries again this season.
The new manager also showed willingness to be tactically flexible, switching up the formation midway through the game.
Yet all the problems which have haunted Sunderland this season resurfaced against Wycombe. The Black Cats need to get to grips with direct opposition as the last seven goals they have conceded have all stemmed from balls crossed into the box.
Granted, Wycombe do boast Adebayo Akinfenwa as their personal knock-down machine, but such an excuse can’t be made against every other team.
Despite being superior at retaining the ball thanks to their 4-2-3-1 formation, Sunderland also lacked a cutting edge and Wycombe had double their amount of shots. However, in their 5-0 home win against Tranmere in Parkinson’s second game, his imprint on the side was evident.
A willingness to be first to the ball resulted in Duncan Watmore’s opening goal, and from then on, a masterclass in coolness and creativity left Tranmere spellbound.
A perfectly placed Chris Maguire free kick after 26 minutes saw the lead doubled, and predatory instinct in the box from Lynden Gooch, Will Grigg and Luke O’Nien extended Sunderland’s lead in a roaring return to top form.
Parkinson has done well so far, but there remain defensive frailties and attacking breakdowns which need addressing urgently. The talent is there for all to see; players like Aiden McGeady, Max Power and Will Grigg could all ply their trade in the Championship.
But Sunderland sit 8th in the table, five points behind the automatic promotion places. Not bad, but also not the glory they crave.
The club is also enduring some serious turbulence in the boardroom; Managing Director Tony Davison recently left and there have been unsettling whispers of an American consortium taking over the club.
Amid the buzz of panic and ambition and boardroom change, it can be easy to become overwhelmed. What Sunderland need from their gaffer is the coolest head on Wearside. What the gaffer needs from Sunderland is confidence, even if they don’t go up this year. Their current slump is the result of a long-term mess, a series of failures in multiple departments.
Parkinson has started brightly enough at the Stadium of Light, but you have to hope that, even if there is short-term pain, Sunderland will give him time.
Image by Ronnie McDonald via Flickr and Creative Commons