Lee Johnson to Sunderland: How and why it happened, what comes next and the takeover question still looming

Follow a club of this size, particularly at a time when the decline is so steep and the emotions so high, and it can be hard to stop and take in everything that goes around you, particularly when it comes to the opposition.

Sunday, 6th December 2020, 8:00 am

Particularly on a day like 'Bristanbul'.

So poor had Sunderland been in the first half of that game, the club's own twitter feed conceded it could take no issue with fans already heading for the exits.

What followed was a barely credible comeback in the second half.

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Lee Johnson oversees his first game in charge of Sunderland

Despair, hope, and ultimately more despair (Sunderland were utterly outplayed by Brentford a week later).

One thing does remain fresh in the memory though, and felt worth dwelling on when digging out the team sheet from that day earlier this week, as it became increasingly clear that Lee Johnson was likely to be the latest tasked with arresting this proud's club steep fall.

The Bristol City boss spoke with impressive clarity after the game, given the adrenaline and emotions everywhere else (his side were sixth at the time, and the result proved costly).Johnson held his hand up and took the blame for the defeat.

He had sensed a drubbing, an afternoon in the sun, and conceded that he had not done enough to shift the tempo when Sunderland had started to get back into the contest.

Sunderland's new Sporting Director, Kristjaan Speakman, watches on at the Stadium of Light

Johnson had spoken with similar poise a year or so earlier, when our paths first briefly crossed.

They had just lost a Severnside derby. It was Neil Warnock's first game in charge and though his side came into the contest thriving, they fell into the veteran's traps.

Johnson spoke of his respect for the 'pantomime villain' and had no intention of going down a path well worn, criticising a lack of ambition or perceived negativity in approach from his opponent.

It was no great surprise, then, to see Johnson front up just hours into his tenure, and after watching his side fall to an insipid defeat against a Wigan Athletic team who started the day bottom of the table.

‘Some honeymoon’, were Johnson's first remarks. All of fifteen minutes.

Tongue was firmly in cheek, but the new Sunderland Head Coach quickly settled into his stride and spoke with honesty about the attacking limitations he witnessed in front of him.

You could argue that really, this is the least important part of the job.

You could also argue with some validity that it’s absolutely vital. Particularly at a club like this one, where the passion in the fanbase is vast and needs to be reflected from the club.

Johnson was clear that he will take this responsiblity on and the first impressions left you in no doubt that he meant business.

The key question is whether the structure around him will provide him with the tools required to turn another flatlining season around, and oversee successful ones beyond that.

It's there that the story of his arrival, and what comes next, gets interesting.

How and why Kristjaan Speakman moved for Johnson, and why he was able to land him

Johnson's arrival was arguably only the second most important of the week.

Sunderland signalled a significant change of direction on Friday afternoon, handing Kristjaan Speakman the role of Sporting Director and with it, an extraordinarily wide brief.

Speakman will direct the club's footballing operations, with a reach extending from the lower age groups in the Academy right up to first-team recruitment. It is a model commonplace in Germany and various other nations around the continent, but one unusual in the UK and certainly in the third tier.

Johnson was Speakman's appointment, and the indications are that the vision he outlined was crucial in convincing the 39-year-old to move north.

It moved quickly this week.

Johnson has candidly admitted that most of his recent preparation and research has been for another club that he felt he might well be taking over in the near future.

It's thought that a presentation from the club and his discussions with Speakman were a key factor in convincing him this was the right option, when in the immediate aftermath of Phil Parkinson's sacking there was some doubt as to whether he would see this as the right opportunity to return to management.

For Speakman, his skillset fitted the brief.

Sources were clear as the week developed that Sunderland were searching for a Head Coach, not a manager, and this was instructive when it came to assessing the names in the frame.Gus Poyet, clearly, was a strong early candidate. A coach with an excellent reputation for his training ground work, and a clearly defined playing style (though one different to Johnson’s in its speed and verticality). The dynamic would nevertheless been curious, given that his previous experience on Wearside in this kind of structure had brought dizzying highs but plenty of rancour and acrimony, too. Perhaps that goes some way to explaining the eventual impasse.

The role seemed less likely to match with some of the other candidates.

Paul Cook was well backed but sources felt on Thursday that from the contact that had taken place, the prospects of an appointment seemed remote.

Cook's work at the DW Stadium was superb, a track record of promotion and with an attacking style. In truth, he felt like the ideal candidate for a year ago, when League One experience and an immediate uptick in results was the criteria for those leading the search and then making an appointment.

Then, though, he was in work and Wigan were on the rise in the division above.

This time, Sunderland sources were adamant that the primary skills required were a strong track record in coaching and player development, and a willingness to blood young players.

Danny Cowley held talks with the club and was an interesting candidate in that at previous clubs, he has very much been a manager of the traditional mould.

He had his admirers, though, and appeared by and large to be happy to work within the structure that Speakman has been appointed to oversee.

Johnson, though, is the neatest fit.

At Bristol City he oversaw the improvement of a raft of players who would go on to earn his club a major profit.

Player trading has been a central part of Bristol City's upward trajectory and in Josh Brownhill, Adam Webster, Lloyd Kelly amongst many others, there is the record of development so crucial to the new plan.

This is the positive of the last two days: a close alignment in the vision and words of the two key footballing figures at the club, and an appointment made that is entirely logical with the brief ahead.

The ‘ownership group’ we still don’t know enough about

There remains, though, something of an elephant in the room.

Both Speakman and Johnson have had to tread carefully in their opening interviews and assessments, referring somewhat euphemistically to the 'ownership group' who have brought them to the club.

It is widely known that the changes initiated this week are closely associated with the consortium led by Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Juan Sartori.

The deal has not yet been confirmed, though, and there remains some concern over just what level of change there will be at boardroom level when it is concluded.

This is the heart of the issue when the evidence of the previous two years has been so contradictory to what is (encouragingly) said to be coming next.

Speakman has landed the job in no small part because of his superb record at Birmingham City when it comes to talent retention and development.

Jude Bellingham's public endorsement of Speakman's work on Friday night was a feather in his cap, and the Borussia Dortmund star was perhaps the best example of a successful strategy.

His contribution to the first-team was meaningful, and the upshot of that was that his value was maximised.

It's the model for Sunderland to follow as they bid to arrest their slump and when Johnson spoke of it on Saturday, it was with genuine enthusiasm.

Supporters will be encouraged, and yet a little sceptical on a day when Joe Hugill scored twice for Manchester United U18s to underline his rapid progress.

The juxtaposition will be lost on few.

Speakman spoke eloquently and convincingly on the need for Sunderland not just to catch up in areas such as data and analytics, but to be targeted in their investment and in some areas, get ahead of the curve.

Both he and Johnson have clearly been convinced in their talks with the club that the money for genuine improvements to infrastructure are on the way.

Johnson had only been at the club for 24 hours and yet picked up on some notable themes. Around the Stadium he sensed a quietness and a lack of confidence, and he has already sensed a sparseness to the staffing levels around the club and in the footballing departments. A reminder of just how underpowered the club have been for large parts of the current regime's tenure and a reminder too, of why clubs like Bristol City have been lightyears ahead of Sunderland in recent times.

That Johnson and Speakman feel confident that this is to be addressed is heartening to hear.

It is also easy to understand a little scepticism, when the shareholding Louis-Dreyfus will hold is not yet known.

The inside track on a new playing philosophy and where Johnson fits in

Another thing that springs to mind, when thinking of past encounters with Lee Johnson's sides.


Ball-carriers through the middle, and real power through the wide areas.

The Paul Heckingbottom side that rose to the Championship and impressed there began their rise under Johnson and their DNA was much the same.

In players like Conor Hourihane they had quality on the ball and the capacity to build pressure that way, but most notable was their capacity to transition to attack quickly and with a real threat.

Speaking on Saturday, Johnson outlined his vision for his Sunderland side.

"I'd certainly like to start with a really high press," he explained.

"The personnel plays a part in that but for me, it's about being bold.

"I want to play forward quickly but not long, so it's about [having] an attitude to break lines, to turn, to receive, to get entries into the box. Certainly at this level, I want to suffocate the opposition and not let them out.

"There will be bumps in the road but as we recruit, as we nurture and as we develop, that performance will be very exciting to watch."

The playing philosophy is something that was heavily discussed with Speakman ahead of his appointment and it was made clear to Johnson that an aggressive high press was central to the footballing vision going forward.

In the short term, though, there are some clear issues.

Sunderland's squad lacks pace and a counter-attacking threat, and this is one of the first things Johnson noticed when he assessed his options ahead of taking charge.

Saturday's disappointing performance did nothing to change his view and after the match, he was candid in admitting it.

It was not a criticism of his other attacking players, quite the opposite.

He feels the lack of variety is hurting his creative players, who need runners to create options in possession and above all else, the space for them to play.

The January window is going to be critical to the team's immediate promotion prospects and the challenge is a tall one.

Salary cap rules mean Sunderland have little room to manoeuvre and they start behind, given Johnson and Speakman's recent arrival and the scarce recruitment department they inherit.Johnson says there will be bumps on the road and after watching this side fail to register a win in their last seven, it's a sentiment that few could disagree with.

Assessing the road ahead

There has been much to digest in the last 48 hours, as some of the pieces of the puzzle have begun to fall into place.

Both Speakman and Johnson have made strong first impressions and the vision they have outlined is one of which you will struggle to find dissent.

A playing style based on energy and enterprise. A recruitment model based on player development and retention of academy players.

The biggest part of that puzzle, though, is yet to drop into place.

Enough managers, coaches and staff have passed through Sunderland in recent times for us to know that their success is only partly in their hands.

Success comes from stability, clarity and investment at the very top.

After an utterly chastening 18 months, many will take a little more convincing that this really is on the horizon. Many will want to hear more of the vision that has been sold to Speakman and Johnson, and see tangible signs of it being put in place.

For now, the focus for Johnson is on beginning to get the ball rolling.

To lift the mood, build confidence, and bring some attacking threat to his side.

They started well here, quicker in tempo and bolder in committing bodies to the final third. It didn't last, and as Johnson addressed a vast array of topics after the game, there was one point he didn't want to be lost.

"Let's not sit here and try and smooth over the fact that we've put in a performance that was mediocre in too many spells," he said.

"That's the bit that I'm really trying to drive up and forward. Inevitably I'll be judged on that over a period of time and the board and everyone else will be judged on the appointment."

This was a reflection of the candidness that means there is much goodwill for Johnson as he sets out on the long road ahead.

What comes next? We've learned not to try and guess.

What we know for sure is that his success will be determined by the environment around him, and whether the vision he has been sold is delivered.

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