Escaping League One Purgatory is Sunderland’s priority – serious questions need to be asked of Lee Johnson

When Paolo Di Canio was sacked in September 2013 the Sunderland Echo declared the situation ‘another fine mess’.

More than eight years on, we remain in a ‘fine mess’ and that particular headline would have been apt at almost any point during that time period.

It would be tempting to describe our decline as ‘Groundhog Day’ but at least Bill Murray’s character had the good fortune of living the exact same day over and over again rather than that day getting gradually worse before suddenly imploding and existing in some kind of League One purgatory.

This particular period of purgatory is especially frustrating because this season did genuinely feel different and it felt as if a few ghosts of League One season’s past were being banished.

Not only did we start the season in blistering fashion but we were playing an attractive brand of attacking football, winning home games at will and even when we rotated heavily in cup competitions we replicated both our style of play and results.

The way we were responding to setbacks was also commendable, every time we had a blip we responded with a victory and got ourselves back on the right track.

Even after a frustrating home loss to Charlton, a changed Sunderland side went to Loftus Road and more than held their own as they progressed to the quarter finals of the League Cup.

But to say that the mood on Wearside has changed since then would be an understatement on the back of two humiliating defeats in South Yorkshire.

From the outside looking in, it is understandable that any speculation over Lee Johnson’s future would appear fickle in the extreme.

Sure, the results and performances have been horrendous and the thousands of travelling away fans deserve much better, but when you put our current run of form into context, it’s easy to see why some fans have reservations over the direction we are heading in.

For a start, four league defeats in six League One games, conceding 14 in the process is unacceptable in any context, but the manner of the defeats has been alarming.

In all of our defeats we have been bullied out of the games and looked naive in comparison to our most recent opponents.

Naturally, this is a consequence of a new approach with much younger players and dips in form are to be expected, but the more senior members of the squad have failed to take charge and help the youngsters through games.

When you examine the wider implications of our recent slump, the picture looks even bleaker, last season after an excellent 15 game unbeaten run, the lads won just one game out of our last nine in the league.

When he was at Bristol City, Johnson had a reputation for this level of inconsistency and so far has done little to dispel this during his time on Wearside.

Last Saturday’s defeat at Rotherham was Johnson’s 46th league game in charge, in that time we have won 23, drawn 12 and lost 12, achieving 81 points in the process.

In our first season in League One this would have been enough to finish 5th in the table and last season would have seen us finish third, albeit a considerable distance behind the two automatically promoted sides.

In many ways this highlights the problematic nature of managing Sunderland in the third tier of English football where nothing less than automatic promotion will do.

Even taking recent form into account, we are just five points off the top two with a game in hand and it is not inconceivable that we could go on another good run and replicate the stunning form we showed earlier in the season.

However, there comes a time when you have to weigh up the pros and cons of a manager’s long-term future.

Bucking the trend

I am all for giving a manager as much time as possible providing there are enough tangible reasons to do so.

For example, I was never in favour of giving Phil Parkinson any longer than he received, because there was nothing in his body of work to suggest we were capable of an upturn in form under his management.

With Johnson I am still on the fence over how many more chances we give him to sustain a promotion-winning run of form over a season.

Under Parkinson and Ross we saw glimpses of high tempo attacking football (yes, even under Parkinson for about a month or so), but under Johnson we have seen this over a more sustained period of time and the fact we’ve only drawn once this season highlights a significant change of approach.

When things have clicked we have been a genuine pleasure to watch and the atmosphere around the club has felt buoyant, therefore in isolation I would accept this as a blip and be more than happy to give him time to turn things around.

But this isn’t about losing four in six, or getting the odd hammering, this is a trend, I was initially all for the appointment of Johnson because I felt his knowledge of managing at a higher level and good reputation as a coach would be superior to the league we currently find ourselves in and it would be enough to put to bed his streaky reputation.

Sadly, this is the second really poor run of his tenure and in recent weeks some of his tactical choices have left people scratching their heads, such as starting with Leon Dajaku at Rotherham and Portsmouth and allowing Luke O’Nien to take set pieces despite previously never taking them.

A further problem is the state of League One Purgatory we find ourselves in.

Lee Johnson may be near the start of his Sunderland journey, but for us as fans we’ve gone from seeing the lads lose every other week in the Premier League, to immediate relegation from the Championship to being seemingly stuck between 3rd and 8th in League One for all eternity.

This is not Johnson’s fault, but it means that patience is understandably in short supply, collectively we are sick of false dawns, of ‘if we win our games in hand we’ll go second’, we are sick of playing in a League which hasn’t been on our radar for the vast majority of our history.

Of course we cannot discount all the positive elements of Johnson’s management, but when your objective is to get out of this league at all costs an evidence based decision must be made as to whether he is the man to break the club’s League One curse and get us moving in the right direction again.

Michael Lough