End of an era: Wilko maybe SAFC’s right man at wrong time

Artist Robin Brown's take on Howard Wilkinson's Sunderland reign
Artist Robin Brown's take on Howard Wilkinson's Sunderland reign
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AFTER more than 25 years working for the paper, GRAEME ANDERSON is leaving the Sunderland Echo to go freelance from next season.

Here he looks back on his time as the Echo’s football writer in the second of a three-part series, recalling the reigns of Howard Wilkinson and Mick McCarthy, the return of Niall Quinn and arrival of Roy Keane.

THE Echo loved a bit of Howard Wilkinson.

Such was the antipathy between the national Press and him – they went at him from the start and never stopped lampooning him – that he chose not to tell them anything.

That helped hasten his demise, of course – that and the disastrous run of results – but, while it lasted, the Echo seemed to be first to just about everything as the new manager sought to reach his core audience.

Unfortunately, while he was good news for the city’s newspaper, he was dreadful for the city’s club.

Appointed almost on a whim by chairman Bob Murray, who rang him for advice on who he should appoint as Peter Reid’s successor, (“Me!” said Howard), he came with the credentials of being the last Englishman to to win the top-flight title.

Despite that, the hearts of Sunderland fans sank when they heard of the appointment of the charisma-free Yorkshireman.

Many saw him as past it.

The wrong appointment at the wrong time.

But, if I’m controversial, maybe he was the right appointment at the wrong time.

He was a great talker, an intellectual, a thinker, but he was a complete mismatch for the team he inherited. Sunderland had been made in the image of their maker: Peter Reid.

And Reid and Wilkinson were chalk and cheese.

It didn’t help either that Niall Quinn and Wilkinson were not a natural fit, and the talismanic Irishman bowed out almost immediately.

The new manager’s lengthy and highly detailed team talks and tactical explanations were alien to the players he had taken on and quickly became the stuff of legend and mockery in the dressing room.

Journalists might relish sitting in the company of a football man for an hour or two as he holds court on every aspect of the sport.

Footballers, though, get bored.

Sunderland players didn’t take to him and they struggled to understand him.

That did not matter to Wilkinson, who was quite prepared to take Sunderland down, utterly remodel them and look to bring them back up.

But he never got the chance, so catastrophic was Sunderland’s collapse on his watch.

Had he been allowed, he would have hoped to create a far more robust, muscular Sunderland outfit going forward.

.I still remember, with a smile, him bemoaning the number of physically slight players he had inherited:

“I mean Julio Arca, Claudio Reyna, and there’s others….have you seen them? Good players, but legs like matchsticks!”

* An odd postscript – because that’s all it turned out to be – to the undoubtedly odd Wilkinson era was the appointment of Steve Cotterill – first it seemed as joint manager, then assistant.

Cotterill was one of fastest rising young coaches in the game at the time.

And the initial idea seemed to be that Cotterill would learn at the feet of the master as Wilkinson steadied the ship, put it back on course, and then passed on the keys to the kingdom.

But maybe power was seductive – maybe Wilkinson sucked back into the role of totalitarian manager?

Whatever happened, Cotterill appeared sidelined – the Echo getting just one interview with him in the whole five-month shambolic slide.

And the young man, who arrived as one of the hottest coaching prospects in the game, departed as a figure of fun, famous only for taking copious notes as Sunderland slid to yet another defeat.

It couldn’t have been much fun for him.

“How many different ways does it take it to write down “sh*te!” heckled one exasperated ffan during a particularly poor game, which at least brought a rare smile to the beleaguered assistant’s face.