Signings, staff and promotion hopes: The inside track on the key issues engulfing Sunderland AFC

The next few weeks at the Stadium of Light seem crucial – both on and off the field.

Tuesday, 10th December 2019, 4:45 pm
Updated Wednesday, 11th December 2019, 5:28 pm

With staffing structures, transfer plans and the squad coming under scrutiny, fans have plenty of questions about the current state of play at Sunderland AFC.

In a wide-ranging Q&A with Echo readers, Phil Smith provides the inside track on the key issues at the Stadium of Light ahead of a festive period which looks set to be a vital one for the Black Cats:

Q: What’s the situation with Phil Parkinson?

Sign up to our Sunderland AFC newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

We examine the key issues engulfing Sunderland AFC
We examine the key issues engulfing Sunderland AFC

A: There doesn’t look to be any prospect of a change as it stands.

I fully expect Parkinson to be in charge for Saturday. It’s a big game, and Simon Grayson returning for the first time since his infamous sacking just minutes after the 3-3 draw with Bolton just adds another layer of intrigue.

Generally speaking, Stewart Donald has backed Phil Parkinson significantly.

He may have spoken about the need for a short-term lift and focused on the need for promotion this season, but he gave him a long contract, backed him to bring a new, extensive backroom staff, and has made plans for the upcoming January window.

Put simply, he will be desperate for this to turn around.

Nevertheless, he was back on Wearside to see the major problems against Burton Albion and though he wasn’t there on Saturday, I’m sure he will be aware just how poor Sunderland looked yet again.

Worrying times for supporters.

Q: If we hadn't let go of Jack Ross, would we be in a better position than we are now?

A: All evidence would suggest so.

You can’t say for certain, and to be fair, everyone at Lincoln will have had the sense that something wasn’t right.

The protracted takeover talks over the summer stalled the club and I think it took it’s toll on everyone, including Jack.

But over a long period, Ross was averaging just over 1.8 points-per-game.

Throughout his tenure, even this season when they looked to have gone into decline, they almost always bounced straight back from a defeat with a result.

Even after Ross faced calls for his departure at Bolton, they went to Sheffield United and won days later.

They lost back-to-back games just once in his entire tenure, against Fleetwood and Southend when their play-off fate was already settled.

I said shortly before his departure that I would have kept faith, but in fairness, I also said that I didn’t see that team winning automatic promotion this season. Something wasn’t right and that was clear.

All evidence suggests they would have taken a lot more than seven points from these last seven league games, however.

So far, the change has backfired massively.

The departure of Ross, regardless of the merits or otherwise of that decision, has exposed a lack of structure and clear strategy on the football side of the club and a lot of the things he was battling against are now catching up with Sunderland.

Q: Is there any news regarding a director of football? And who would be interested (with experience) for the job?

A: There’s no sign of it at this stage.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this Q&A, it’s something that Charlie Methven has suggested has been considered but it doesn’t appear to have progressed any further than that.

People will have their own views on Directors of Football.

I’d argue Sunderland’s problems with it in the past are primarily because of the personnel appointed to the role, rather than the role itself.

Certainly, it’s not a cure-all solution and there’s plenty of examples where tension or disagreements between a manager and such a figure can be counter-productive.

The team just looks muddled at the moment and the transition from Ross to Parkinson just highlights the lack of strategy and clear thinking, in my opinion at least.

Q: Given recent history, why would we trust Phil Parkinson and Tony Coton with the limited transfer funds we have available in January?

A: There are major questions over the club’s recruitment.

All I would say in mitigation with regards to Tony Coton is that we’re talking about a head of recruitment that for most of his time here, was operating without any kind of real scouting network.

It was often down to him and Jack Ross to find players from games they had watched and their contacts.

So in that set of circumstances, the results are always likely to be mixed.

With regards to last summer, worth remembering too that for much of the early months after the play-off defeat, it looked extremely likely that a takeover would lead to a complete overhaul of the recruitment department.

Coton and Ross had to spring into action pretty quickly when that didn’t materialise.

There is a scouting network being put in place now, but how quickly we can realistically expect to see the results of that remains to be seen.

The club certainly needs a more coherent recruitment strategy that doesn’t just rest on a particular manager’s preferences.

Should that lead to a fresh voice on the football side of the club?

I’d argue yes.

Q: Do you think PP can take us up this season?

A: With this current set of players, no.

It’s clear that the style he is trying to implement isn’t working.

It has to be concerning that the forward line is getting so little service and subsequently shows such little confidence.

Saturday summed it up, Sunderland failing to muster any real attacking quality and finishing the game with Aiden McGeady and Duncan Watmore not even getting off the bench.

They might have been unlucky in one or two of the early games of his tenure, but they’ve been beaten on merit consistently of late.

So the only way I see something changing (enough to win promotion) is if Sunderland can have a transformative January window.

That’s much easier said than done and we’ve soon so often at this club how tough it is to recruit in January.

Things feel very bleak at the moment.

Q: Are the club actively looking for replacements for Charlie Methven & Tony Davison or will Juan assume these roles?

A: It’s a really good question.

Certainly in the case of Charlie, the word has been that Juan’s return to the UK will help fill that void.

How that materialises we’ll have to wait and see.

He has not been seen on Wearside since the opening day of the season and now has to balance his commitments with his role as a senator in Uruguay.

If he is going to bring some energy, leadership and fresh ideas, though, then it’s certainly a club that could with it.

In terms of Tony Davison, he has not been replaced yet but he has to be.

It’s not a role Juan could fill.

It’s a role that needs someone based in Wearside, day in, day out. It’s the boring stuff that needs daily attention and direction to provide leadership at the club and a sense of direction.

I’d argue it could do with being a fresh voice detached from the ownership group.

When I spoke to Charlie Methven earlier in the season, he rejected the idea of a Chief Executive, saying that most top clubs operate by splitting the football and commercial side of the business, and appoint an expert to oversee each one.

That makes a lot of sense, but currently, Sunderland have neither.

Until that changes, you’re just hoping to land on a manager who can deliver success.

We’ve seen over a long period of time that this is very difficult to do.

Q: Do you think we should recall the lads out on loan who are doing well to push for first team starts?

A: I think Jack Diamond and Jordan Hunter and getting the football they need and at this stage of their development, it’s the best thing for them.

I’d leave them be and let them continue improving.

In terms of Ethan Robson, he’s obviously been going through a slightly tougher period with Grimsby struggling in the League Two table.

He made a flying start, scoring him stunning goals and showing what we all know he’s capable of.

Put simply, I would absolutely recall him.

He has six months left on his contract, is 23, loves the club, and with a bit of height, snap and quality on his left foot, has something different to what is currently in the squad.

He’s at an age where he needs to be playing and thinking about his long-term career prospects.

So if he returns and can’t fight is way in, then there is a big decision to be made.

But he should not be allowed to leave until he’s had a chance to show what he can do.

Q: Do you think we will invest in January to the significant level which is clearly needed? And is the time is probably right for a few to leave the football club too?

A: It’s going to be a huge month for the club.

From what we’ve soon far, it’s safe to assume there will be a lot of change under Parkinson.

He’s not getting a response from his forward line and if he stays, something will have to give.

Regardless of the manager, it’s abundantly clear that this squad needs an injection of pace and probably some creativity, too.

The issue is of course that Sunderland find themselves having a bit of an identity crisis.

If Parkinson wants to implement his methods, the squad will need significant overhaul.

With three games still to be played between now and then, it feels a long way anyway.

Donald seems minded to stick, rather than twist, at the moment.

In terms of the level of investment, Donald and Methven both said there would be support for the manager and fans will be expecting that to be the case.

Q: Just how worried are you about the situation on Wearside?

A: Coming back from the game on Saturday was probably as flat as I’ve felt following Sunderland.

Gillingham did their job and fair play to them, but to see Sunderland approach a game in that way and look so lost was tough.

The football at the moment is desperately poor to watch, which his one thing when you’re winning, but another entirely when the results aren’t coming and a club of this size is labouring at this level.

The team at the moment is a reflection of the club, muddled and lacking direction.

At the moment, there feels like little cause for optimism and it is going to take some serious leadership to turn it around, both in the short and the long term.