Chris Coleman reflects on Sunderland tenure as he gears up for Aston Villa return fixture
A Tuesday night clash against Aston Villa is as good a place as any to reflect on Chris Coleman's progress as Sunderland manager.
Not enough, is the bottom line and the Black Cats boss is the first to admit it.
On his first game in charge last November, with 10 first-team players unavailable, Sunderland were outgunned. Villa were more clinical and certainly more streetwise, grinding out a win with an efficient if not spectacular performance.
Still, that evening Coleman laid down a marker as to what he wanted from his team.
They had the lion’s share of the ball, rarely the case under Simon Grayson, patient and deliberate in their build-up play. Darron Gibson, a peripheral figure until that point, was installed as the side’s heartbeat, setting the tempo in front of the defence.
It looked like a masterstroke and in truth, they have never looked the same side since his groin injury on New Year’s Day.
Coleman looked to be making steady inroads until the brutal run of form at the turn of the year, a rut they have only recently begun to show signs of recovering from.
The 47-year-old knew exactly what he was walking into but injuries and a testing January window have added further obstacles.
There have been moments when his ebullient nature has been tested but that he remains so upbeat ahead of the return fixture offers some consolation.
“I think that ideally we wouldn’t be where we are, I’d hoped that it would be slightly different in terms of building a team and adding to it in January. That was a very tough four weeks for us,” Coleman says.
“Coming from where I was into this situation, you know it isn’t going to be easy unless you just go on a great run but obviously we haven’t done that.
“We’ve shown some good signs and then shot ourselves in the foot, not backed results up. We’ve not done that all season. That’s what I still hold onto, what it would do to the whole place if we did that.
“If we win back-to-back the chances are we will get out of the bottom three and that would be such a boost.
“From Aston Villa away to now, yep, bumpy ride, uncomfortable, stressful, all of that, but I still think we’ve got a lot to say and I still think we can get to that magic position of being away from the bottom three.
“I still think we can do that. It is funny how things go in our position, dates and times, to be honest it is a blur looking back, I’m always looking at the next game. That’s how it is when you’re so desperate to win.”
Despite some frustrations with results and formations Coleman remains immensely popular on Wearside and there is much he has been pleased with.
His squad are slowly producing a consistency of application and while he would have relished a January kitty, he is clearly happier working with the current squad than the one he inherited.
The Black Cats lost some real talent that month but Coleman clearly does not mourn for those who jumped ship.
They are small steps but ones that needed to be taken.
Yet at the back of the mind of every supporter and staff member sits the dreaded thought: What if it doesn’t turn in time? What if it isn’t enough? What happens then?
“That’s what hangs around your neck,” Coleman says.
“The thought of not being in the Premier League was bad enough, the thought of being in League One, a club of this size, that hangs over you every time you go on to the training pitch, every time you go on to the pitch.
“We’ve not yet used that in a positive way. We’ll do that if we win a couple of games, because then it will start bubbling and it is fantastic. At the moment we’re in the negative because there was a point where we barely looked like a team, 2-0 before we kicked a ball. That’s a dangerous place to be, we have been pulling away from that but what we haven’t had is the three points.
“Then if we can get out the bottom three, that can be the catalyst for us. That’s how I see it, easier said than done of course.”
Coleman will have a deeper pool of players to pick from this time around, with the likes of Jonny Williams and Ovie Ejaria boosting both the quality and variety in his midfield.
Three months on, Coleman is still searching for that definitive step forward, the run of results that adds tangible progress to the improved mood. He is still convinced it will come.