How Phil Parkinson turned his troubled Sunderland tenure around and the decisions which have proved key
Alim Ozturk spoke with a calm that belied one of the most acrimonious afternoons the Stadium of Light had seen.
He had been in charge barely two months and yet already, it looked a long way back for Phil Parkinson.
Sunderland had drawn 0-0 with Bolton Wanderers and fans had called for change.
If it seemed extreme to neutrals looking on, then it did not feel that way inside a ground where fans had watched their team plummet to the lowest position in its history.
The Black Cats were toothless, dumped out of every cup and their promotion hopes seemingly ebbing away.
Ozturk, though, presented a different picture.
There was no hiding the frustrations with results but the Turk insisted that on the training ground, Parkinson and his staff’s detailed instruction was beginning to make an impression.
It seemed fanciful at the time, but from the moment Lynden Gooch fired a tremendous strike into the top corner just days later at Doncaster Rovers, they have been a side transformed.
Resilient, tenacious, effective, and occasionally, free-flowing.
This is how he did it….
Parkinson’s switch to a 3-4-3 has been inspired though in truth, it has been more about personnel than pure numbers.
The move to this formation pre-dated that win at Doncaster and in the early days, it was seen as yet another example of a negative mindset that would hold Sunderland back.
That came to a head away at Gillingham, when the manager praised his team for ‘having a go’ when they had made little impression on the opposition goal.
Indeed, on that afternoon when Bolton should have taken three points, the reluctance to bring on an attacker when Tom Flanagan was injured, with Laurens De Bock his replacement, formed a key part of the explosive statement from fans groups, calling for sweeping change at the club.
When Sunderland next played at the Keepmoat Stadium, they played on the front foot and with an aggression that their opponents could not live with.
Same system, and entirely different mindset.
Key to the change was the crucial evolution of personnel, with Luke O’Nien and Denver Hume seizing the wing-back positions and turning those roles into ultra-attacking ones.
Parkinson arrived promising fans that he would play positive football, but he made no apologies for his claim that the team before his arrival had been too open and vulnerable to the counter-attack.
He spoke of ‘locking in’ attacks, getting bodies in the final third but being disciplined enough to ensure they would not be opened up when they lost possession.
The early demolition of Tranmere Rovers gave an insight into his vision, but it proved unsustainable for two key reasons: a vulnerability in defence and a habit of leaving the lone striker painfully isolated.
The extra centre-back and two attacking midfield roles have changed that.
Hume and O’Nien have been able to push high, covered by two powerful and physical centre-backs who step into their flank.
When Sunderland are forced to go more direct, they now often have bodies who can get close to the centre-forward and feed off them.
A key part of the criticism aimed at Parkinson after that Bolton draw was that extended time on the training pitch was not yielding any visible results, a pattern of play or attacking identity.
That is now beginning to change.
Sunderland had been a much improved side defensively from last season long before Parkinson’s arrival, but the formation change and consistency he has drawn from his defenders has meant that the clean sheets are now being secured at a remarkable rate.
KEY PERSONNEL RETURNING
It is worth remembering, too, that much of that bleak midwinter was played without two figures key for Parkinson’s style.
The Black Cats boss has spoken of his admiration for Liverpool and Leeds, and the relentless energy they produce off-the-ball.
That’s key to his vision of a team that plays with the intensity that Sunderland supporters demand.
He’s a manager who clearly subscribes to the view that your best playmaker can be your press, winning the ball in dangerous areas where the opposition can not recover.
To that end, Gooch has emerged as a real leader on the pitch.
His strikes from distance have vaight the headlines but just as key have been the goals forced from pressuring opposition centre-backs, and last week Rochdale were just the latest team to be overwhelmed in the early exchanges of the game at the Stadium of Light.
This is also the key reason for his faith in Charlie Wyke.
The debate over his effectiveness continues, and it is a fair one when Sunderland’s final-third output remains questionable.
There have been games where they’ve been too reliant on individual quality to produce a goal.
Parkinson and his backroom staff constantly stress how intelligent Wyke is out of possession, however, and how he leads the press effectively.
As long as Gooch and Chris Maguire continue to produce the goals, it means his place in the team is secure.
That shift in style, and the emphasis on pressing the opposition, has also demanded significant conditioning.
Parkinson could not have done more to stress how important he believed the arrival of Nick Allamby to be. Various areas of the club had not seen significant cutbacks since relegation to League One and this was another.
Parkinson inherited some outstanding staff but Allamby’s arrival has proved a reminder of what targeted investment off-the-pitch can do.
In the depths of that winless run, Parkinson privately took some encouragement from the improving physical numbers he was seeing his players post.
It’s beginning to translate into results and no one sums it up more than Maguire.
One of the key moments of Parkinson’s tenure so far looks to be the discussion he held with the talented attacking midfielder early on his tenure.
Maguire has been clear in his desire to earn a new contract at Sunderland.
So Parkinson laid down the gauntlet in clear teams. Alongside Allamby, he presented the player and his agent with exactly where he needed to be physically to get in the team and stay there.
Maguire has also spoken of how the manager picked up on some elements of his game he wanted to see shift to fit in with his approach.
The upshot of it is that with thirteen games to go, Sunderland have a genuine matchwinner in supreme form.
The decision to move Aiden McGeady out of the first team environment was arguably Parkinson’s bravest call.
Even if he had been well short of his best form this season, he remained such a threat to the opposition.
It remains a difficult call to fully assess.
Parkinson was clear that he felt the spirit of the group needed to improve and that unless he made this decision, that might not happen.
That call has to be set against the way McGeady had played through the pain barrier at the end of last season, and the way he had twice thrown himself into action without any real pre-season.
Early in Jack Ross’ tenure, the winger had told him of his determination to put right the wrongs of relegation to the Championship. He trained and played like he meant just that.
Ultimately, that Parkinson has never really been asked about the decision since tells you that Sunderland have not suffered on the pitch.
Off it, there is a unity and purpose that means it is tough to quibble with his decision.
THE KEY CONCERN AND THE ROAD AHEAD
The bedrock of Parkinson’s turnaround has been built on defensive resilience.
Sunderland now have the best record in the division and are producing clean sheets at a ratio that makes them very difficult to beat.
Parkinson, though, will know that the hardest part is still to come.
Ultimately, Sunderland are just one place in the table ahead of where they were when Ross departed, and just one point closer to the top two. That dismal run still threatens to leave them just short again come the end of the season.
The biggest question mark is whether they are a potent enough attacking force to get ahead of their main rivals for the automatic promotion places.
Parkinson has proved plenty but will be acutely aware that he has achieved nothing yet.
That, though, has been one of the more intriguing aspects of recent weeks.
The Black Cats boss was measured throughout that bleak midwinter run, opting against passionate rebuttals of criticism and defiant defences of his work.
For many it underlined a lack of suitability to such a high-profile managerial role.
His eloquent and mature response when asked about that time reflects his experience in the game and gave an insight into the single-mindedness that appears to define him.
What was once seen as a negative is slowly starting to be seen as an asset.
Only promotion to the Championship will cement that as after all, that was the clear brief he was given on arrival.
Sunderland have momentum, though, and that is remarkable to anyone who watched that afternoon unfold.
Fate in football can turn in the strangest and quickest of moments, and that strike from Gooch at the Keepmoat Stadium, appeared to breathe new life and aggression into this side.
There have been two very different Sunderland’s under Parkinson, and which one turns up between now and the end of the season will go some way to defining how he is judged.