On Trial – How Sunderland’s Automatic Promotion Hopes Were Robbed

Sunderland missing out on automatic promotion would be a crime. Graeme Atkinson writes that the court would return a guilty verdict - but the inquest is complex.
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On a bright, sunny day in April, just over a week ago, Sunderland stared into their future and it looked inviting. After three seasons trekking through the desert of League One, the fresh, cool waters of automatic promotion were tantalisingly on the horizon, so close you could almost quench your thirst.

Like a cruel mirage on Blackpool beach, the top two spots have now evaporated. By any measure, the Black Cats’ season has unraveled.

How have Sunderland’s chances of automatic promotion dissipated? The easy narrative is to claim the players have ‘bottled it’. Three defeats on the spin at this stage of the season would, at a glance, suggest you’d be justified in this belief. But the truth is more nuanced than that.

There is a case to suggest that this series of results is just a lull in form. A blip. Something that happens to every team in every division during every season for myriad different reasons.

Even Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have bad runs. Case in point: it’s late October 2016, City are top of the Premier League but have not won in five games. Given the obscene wealth at that club, expectations were, and still are, through roof. The pressure was on the former Barcelona man to turn it around – immediately. City finished third that season but went on to win the Premier League the year after.

Guardiola seemed relaxed about the poor form back in 2016. “Sometimes you are able to win 10 times in a row and after not win five times. That is part of football.” It happens and it happens to the best.

Unfortunately for Sunderland, this dip in form has made two appearances this season.

The first leaned more toward a prolonged suffering. In the court of public opinion, if we were to try one person for the crime of missing out on automatic promotion, the jury would return a unanimous verdict. Phil Parkinson: guilty.

Exhibit A

Parkinson strung together a series of results which left the Lads five points from the-play off places at the end of November. Only six wins in the league and five draws to accompany two defeats. That, right there, did for us this season. Make no mistake about it.

In contrast, during the same period, Hull City notched up eleven victories. In fact, Hull managed 33 points between September and the beginning of December. Sunderland, in contrast, managed only 24. One of those is attributed to caretaker Andrew Taylor.

In short, Parkinson gifted the Tigers a nine point head-start with one arm or, as he’s also known, Aiden McGeady, behind our back. At that stage, any future poor run clearly has an outsize impact on our chances of automatic promotion.

Exhibit B

If we drill down into some detail, let’s look at our trip to Doncaster Rovers in November. Sunderland had five shots on target, 49% possession and a pass completion rate of 80% from 521. The result? A 1-1 draw. Conversely, in the 4-1 home win against Rovers we accumulated only one extra shot on target, 51% possession and 79% pass completion from 493 made. A near identical set of stats against the same opposition.

The difference? The man in charge. Johnson’s side was more clinical and put the Reds to the sword. Interestingly, as a side note, a Lee Burge howler can be quickly forgotten when you’re banging in four at the other end, can’t it?

The difference is also about the shape of the team, how they are set up to attack and defend and Johnson should take credit for the turnaround here. But if you want to just view the broader picture, this also proves, like the recent game against Blackpool, sometimes you get the rub of the green and sometimes luck is just not with you.

The case for the prosecution (against Lee Johnson)

For balance, the worry is that ‘streaky’ Johnson is on the verge of living up to his namesake. Just prior to his sacking at Bristol City they were also tantalisingly close to the automatic promotion spots. Three points off the top two preceded a nine-game winless run that also included seven defeats. Mid-table form.

What this doesn’t show is context. Previous seasons had seen Johnson make progress with the Robins, with top-half finishes in the Championship.  It’s true, during his first full season in Bristol he set a new club record of eight successive league defeats. But what followed was nine wins in a row. Even with limited games now remaining Parkinson helped ensure that Sunderland would not see the benefit of any similar upturn under Johnson.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of Johnson is the fact that Parkinson has a better points per game ratio at Sunderland – 1.77 vs 1.74 – this season in the league. The prosecution rests, you might say. Well, not quite. This stat includes the first Wigan defeat where Johnson had only taken the reins hours before kick-off and we should also be mindful of the COVID outbreak within the squad shortly after his arrival.

In further defence of Johnson, the 14 games without defeat can’t be overlooked. They included a win at Wembley too. All of this with an injury list that would have obliterated any other team’s prospects. Only one fit centre-back for months now, just as Wright returns Sanderson exits stage left. Would Parkinson have been capable of achieving success in these circumstances? Decisively, no.

The verdict

It is possible to be critical of a manager without calling for his head. We can of course accept that Johnson has made some mistakes at Sunderland. Some questionable substitutions and team selections at times have seen collective heads scratched.

However, if we objectively examine the position the club is in overall it is unquestionably healthier now than it was at the end of November. Kyril Louis-Dreyfus is a huge factor in that. But for those questioning Johnson already, he needs to be judged post-pandemic over a longer period, for the reasons outlined above.

Parkinson has robbed us of automatic promotion. That is evident. He had 13 months in charge to get it right here. Some players need to be held accountable and many won’t be with us next season whatever happens, for good reason.

But let’s not be revisionist. There are players who were just recently extolled as perfect Championship understudies in some quarters, who are now being given their marching orders. Footballers, like managers, make mistakes; we can poke fun, we can be angry, but it’s important to refrain from impulsive on the whistle judgements about their longer-term ability.

Automatic promotion may be gone this season, but for Sunderland, success remains a possibility under Johnson. History tells us an upswing follows on from the down and this, crucially, could coincide with victory in the play-offs. That has to remain the focus.

Graeme Atkinson