This season seems to be simmering along quite nicely, doesn’t it? Because the revolving doors at the Stadium of Light was spitting out players as quick as they were coming through, there was always going to be a period of instability until the side found their rhythm.
Let’s not kid ourselves that there won’t be testing times to come but to be within touching distance of the top two sides is more than satisfactory.
Next up is Coventry City and while we are now getting into the territory of expecting to take a positive result away from home at places such as the Ricoh Arena, I also expect them to be an obstinate side, very much in the mould of their manager.
That’s not a disparaging remark by the way. I meant that as a compliment to Mark Robins, a manager I know quite well after spending two seasons under him at Barnsley. However this game pans out, if Sunderland do win this game, you know they will have earned it because on top of many other things, Mark Robins’ teams are never beaten easily.
While Barnsley manager, the first objective was always to survive in the Championship on a League One budget and he managed that with ease. The comfort of mid-table safety was a relative success.
The fact is he left the club down to a fallout with the owner Patrick Cryne rather than anything to do with any failure to get the best out of his players on the pitch. For me, those two years were some of the most enjoyable times of my career, despite not playing a great deal – and that was because of Mark.
Luke Steele had broken his finger, so I played in the Mark’s first few games in charge at Barnsley after he replaced Simon Davey. I knew from the moment he walked in that I liked him. Some players like to know where they stand with a manager but I always think a certain amount of distance that leaves you guessing a little bit, works best.
While he was always approachable, he could have an aloofness about him, which again I liked. He had a great work ethic, making sure training was of a high intensity, and demanded high standards.
When he arrived, first and foremost we needed to stop the rot so he organised us to be difficult to beat. Once we solidified, he brought in Eric Harrison, the godfather of the much-vaunted youth system of the late 80s and early 90s to work on us being less rigid as a side when were going forward and encouraging players to break out of the lines placed on them by tactical formations.
He made such great use of the loan market too, bringing in the likes of Kieran Trippier from Manchester City and Danny Drinkwater from Manchester United. That takes a good eye.
More than that though, I liked his no-frills attitude to his work. He’d make a great poker player because he doesn’t give too much away but that only means that when he does say or do something unexpected, it has more impact. Especially as a man manager.
He offered me a new deal fairly swiftly after he arrived as I’d only signed a one-year contract and something like that means a lot. You see players left hanging on by managers until the very last moment, stringing them along before dropping them in it with a ‘sorry but we don’t have the budget’ kind of excuse.
But it was the next season that really cemented what I thought about him as a man. We’d had a chat earlier in the season about keeping me on and he was honest enough to say even though he was happy with me in the role I had as a No 2, pushing Steele every day, a low maintenance, hard-working member of the squad, he didn’t know whether he might bring in someone younger. Which basically amounts to someone cheaper.
Discussions ran until after the very last game of the season and he called me in to the small coaching staff room at Oakwell. He knew that his relationship with the chairman had irreparably broken down and the inevitable was going to happen.
His last act as manager was to renew my contract for another season with the club. I was happy at Barnsley and delighted to be staying on but I also know it was something that he didn’t have to do.
He was being placed on gardening leave yet he still made sure for that summer at least, I could go away on holiday not worrying about whether I had a job to go back or not. And for that I’ll always be grateful to him.
So as much as I want Sunderland to win on Saturday, I won’t begrudge Mark Robins a point or even three.