Phil Smith's verdict: Why Sunderland appointed Phil Parkinson and the key challenges that he faces

“His CV put him on our shortlist. His references within the game set him apart.”

Thursday, 17th October 2019, 2:05 pm

Some of Stewart Donald’s first words on appointing Phil Parkinson, and an insight into the process that has led him to making one of the biggest decisions of his Sunderland tenure to date.

It’s a choice that he knows he will face criticism for, one that he knows that will not be universally welcomed.

Donald was won over not just by the recommendations from those leading the recruitment process, who were clearly impressed with Parkinson, but his reputation in the wider game. He is respected as a good leader and a resourceful manager, who makes the most of what he has to work with and leads from the front.

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Phil Parkinson has been appointed the new Sunderland manager
Phil Parkinson has been appointed the new Sunderland manager

It was noted, too, that his tenures on average last far longer than the norm.

A sign, it was felt, of a good temperament, someone adept at managing upward as well and downward, and a competent tactician.

That there would many underwhelmed was obvious but the decision was made that Parkinson would ultimately be defined by his results.

Start well, get the club going, and it would be irrelevant. Similarly, a more household or exciting name would soon, quite rightly, lose their appeal if it became clear that he could not lift the club up the table.

Over the next few weeks and months the defining logic behind a dramatic two weeks will be tested.

Jack Ross was dismissed because the belief in the boardroom was not just that promotion was a must, but that everything was there for it to be achieved.

The budget, the players, the facilities.

In Parkinson, they believe they have appointed a man who can make the tweaks necessary to produce better results at both ends of the pitch.

He will certainly benefit from better defensive personnel than Ross had at his disposal for most of his tenure.

Despite the woeful showing at Lincoln City, there have been clear signs for a while that the likes of Joel Lynch and Jordan Willis can provide a platform for the rest of the side.

Should performances in goal improve as they surely will, Parkinson will quickly be able to establish a significant better defensive output and here his timing might well prove very good.

It’s in the final third that his biggest challenge lies.

Though Sunderland’s goalscoring record is generally reasonable, that Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke have just one league goal between them this season is a worrying statistic.

Ross long bemoaned a lack of a ruthless streak in his side, the frustrating number of draws a fundamental reason for his near miss last season and frustration at the start of this.

It’s here that Parkinson’s coaching and management skills will be most tested, and where he can arguably make the biggest difference to a team that still sits in an ultimately strong position in the table.

For a while now, the central debate around Sunderland has been just how good this squad is, and how it stands up to the rest of the division.

In appointing Parkinson, the board have made clear that they believe it is top-two material, and the path to getting there is in appointing a manager who knows the division.

Whether Sunderland are promoted this season will ultimately establish whether that was right.

It’s a gamble because making the change now, and making the short term aim of winning promotion at all costs abundantly clear risks tying the club back to a cycle it was desperate to break out of.

What if Parkinson falls just short?

He has a two-and-a-half year deal, but would that mean starting again?

Will Parkinson’s arrival require a shift in recruitment and what will the long-term effect of that be?

It’s perfectly fair for anyone to ask questions of where this appointment and change in direction fits into the wider direction of the club and the long-term goal of returning to the Premier League.

As such, any unease in the fanbase cannot be separated from the ongoing talks over investment in the club, talks that will in so many ways be more crucial and more defining than this appointment.

Parkinson will get backing from the fanbase.

No matter what, they will be there at Wycombe, or watching on iFollow, or listening on the radio.

Every one will be willing Parkinson to deliver a resilient side that scores goals and succeeds.

Concerns over the manager’s style will need to be allayed but Parkinson will no doubt argue that it’s all about getting the best out of the players he has. Here, it’s tough to argue that the players at his disposal are best suited to a direct game.

Time will tell whether can settle on the formula that can turn a good League One side into a very good one.

The stakes could not be much higher.

It’s a big change in direction, and it needs to succeed.