Phil Parkinson opens up on his Sunderland tenure so far, his biggest frustration and the key area for improvement
In truth, this FA Cup replay is a game Phil Parkinson could do without.
After a frenetic start to his Sunderland tenure, this week was supposed to be the much-needed break.
A chance to hit the pause button, get players back to fitness, put in the hard yards on the training ground, get his messages across and look ahead to what increasingly looks like a pivotal January transfer window.
The game precedes a crucial pair of league fixtures, home games against Coventry City and Burton Albion that will offer a key early barometer as to the impact he is having on this group of players.
While he has fairly pointed to some improved elements of their performances since he took charge, consistency has been an issue and two desperately poor results in the leasing.com trophy have raised the pressure.
He insists he is enjoying the challenge, even if the seemingly ever-growing injury list is presenting a challenge for Tuesday night and beyond.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Parkinson said.
“I know I keep saying that but it really has, I haven’t really had a chance to sit back that much and reflect.
“I think there’s challenges that I think everyone knows about, there’s areas where we can get better in terms of bringing players in and areas where we can get better in terms of getting more out of the players we’ve got.
“The most frustrating thing for us has been the injuries to players in key areas, but that happens and it’s part and parcel of football.
“It’s a big challenge, I’m really enjoying it,” he added.
“I know that when you get beat in a game, it doesn’t matter the competition, it affects everybody, but that’s at every club across the country, every club I’ve ever been at as a player and as a manager.
“On a Monday when you win, everyone feels 10ft tall, when you lose it feels like the end of the world. Sunderland is just a bigger scale of that because of the sheer volume of support and expectation.
“Everyone is desperate to do well, I feel we’ve got a very clear pathway to be successful and we’re working towards that.”
The defeat to Leicester City U21s was concerning, though Parkinson pointed to a lack of balance and match fitness in the XI he selected as mitigation.
To that end, the 3-0 defeat at Scunthorpe was even more alarming given the strength of the side the Black Cats boss named.
Afterwards, he cut a composed figure, determined not to criticise a group seemingly short on confidence and certainly short on results.
Parkinson wants more from his players but it is clear that he believes they are currently significantly underpowered in the final third.
He is eager to get Charlie Wyke and Lynden Gooch back from injury, but also to strengthen when the January window opens.
“I think the minute you start criticising players in public, I think it becomes very difficult for those players to work for you,” he said.
“We speak to the players individually and collectively about what we expect of them, and we’ll be putting demands on these players probably a level above what they’ve had for a long time.
“We were all hurting a lot after getting beat, when you look at that competition, you look at the teams Sunderland picked last year and the teams I’ve picked [at Bolton], the youngsters have played.
“Those youngsters are desperate to play well and impress, they show that hunger and desire.
“Quite often when you play senior players in that competition, and it’s not an excuse, it’s almost [sighs], it’s that competition.
“The first game, I was new to the job and wanted to take a look at the senior players and the second game, without having a game at the weekend, I went with a stronger team.
“Like I said after the game, I could clearly see the reasons we didn’t win the game,” he added
“One, we didn’t play well enough and we didn’t threaten the goal enough. We went into the game with one fit striker and I don’t care who you play in football, if you haven’t got a real threat at the top of the pitch, it’s going to be tough.
“So as much as I was frustrated and livid about not winning, very quickly as a manager you’ve got to see the clear picture and I know exactly what we’ve got to get to to win games consistently.
“We need threats at the top end of the pitch to worry opposition defenders. In my league games I think we’ve had that. The first half against Gillingham, I thought we played really well. We didn’t respond to the way they pressed us in the second half so the start, to implement that when the intensity of our play hasn’t been there and the personnel hasn’t been right, we’ve come down a level from that.
“When that happens it’s hard to win football games.”
The fixture list between now and that January window offers challenges and opportunities.
This replay that nobody wanted now offers a chance to build momentum after a stop-start few weeks, and it’s one that both Parkinson and his players have to take.