“Streaky Lee” – the unwanted reputation Lee Johnson just can’t shake at Sunderland

Three defeats in a row for Sunderland after such a promising start has given rise to Lee Johnson's reputation for inconsistency. Graeme Atkinson looks for warnings from the past to investigate whether history will repeat itself
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Recent results have prompted the phrase ‘streaky Johnson’ to re-enter the lexicon of Sunderland supporters. It’s a term we all hoped had been permanently retired. One would imagine none more so than Lee Johnson.

Despite everyone willing for it become obsolete his past reputation continues to pursue him doggedly. It stubbornly refuses to be erased like that stain on your favourite shirt.

Johnson may feel consecutive three league defeats are insufficient to hold up as the latest example of a ‘streaky nature’, certainly if we judge against his past record. Some positive results in the cup in-between those losses will also be offered as mitigation for that.

Yet, talk of what does or doesn’t constitute a ‘streak’ is all a sideshow in the end.

The bottom line is that for any club with serious ambitions of gaining automatic promotion Sunderland’s recent spell would quieten even the most optimistic voices. That it comes during the club’s fourth consecutive season in League One only serves to compound frustrations.

Johnson’s reputation certainly preceded him before his arrival late last year. And there’s evidence since to suggest he isn’t capable of applying a tourniquet to stem any metaphorical flow of blood. Despite this there’s a sense we haven’t found the need to arrive at the emergency ward just yet.

However, just as plaudits are offered during the glow of victory, criticism justifiably will be directed towards Johnson in the shadow of defeat.

Unfortunately, Tuesday night’s interview with the club’s own social media channels showed a man shaken by the circumstances in which he finds himself. As if confronted by the horrors of Christmas past, Johnson appeared visibly uneasy in the immediate aftermath and looked to be anticipating the critics with trepidation. He made some reasonable points during his brief appearance in front of camera. Yet we were met with several appeals for fans’ continued support. It all felt like the pleas of desperate man rather than a measured and calm voice.

In fairness, defeats are one thing of course but for the head coach, when the manner of them takes the form of abject capitulation, defending them in any way becomes all the harder.

Certainly being on the wrong end of a successive 5-1 and a 3-0 loss rounding off another to an old nemesis in Charlton has caused a lot of Johnson’s good work to be undone. To his credit, let’s remember there were those who have already questioned the merits of sticking with him following last season’s surrender.

While there was a sense that he had regained control of the wheel this campaign and deservedly earned respect as a result, we find ourselves confronting that streaky Johnson reputation once again.

When viewed through the lens of what has gone before, rightly or wrongly, we already feel at a crossroads. Indeed, the form table now has Sunderland lying in 17th place.

How quickly things turn from bright to dark.

We can’t escape the fact that any head coach will have cause to answer questions under these circumstances. Bristol City certainly asked them of Johnson, in similar circumstances too and for them his answers weren’t deemed good enough.

Let’s not forget that July 2020 saw Johnson given his P45 from the Robins following four consecutive defeats and seven losses in nine matches. Of course for Bristol City fans the events leading to his dismissal were the straw that broke the camel’s back. For them, there was broader context to consider. Bristol Post’s Gregor Macgregor summarised the situation well at the time;

“…the problem was that we’ve been here before: the last three promising seasons all fizzled out come the sharp end of the campaign, in depressingly similar camel coat fashion. There was also that record run of losses in 2016/17.”

Those ‘record run of losses’ refer to eight successive defeats, which preceded nine victories. Streaky, you might say.

Depressingly for Sunderland supporters this may all begin to feel like an eerie premonition of its future not an assessment of Bristol City’s past. 

Defeat in League One is certainly no stranger to the Black Cats. No one expects a season to go by without a sprinkling throughout. Hull and Peterborough went up last year automatically with 11 losses to their name. Sunderland failed with nine. As such automatic promotion is still a viable option. Let’s not lose sight of this. However, to achieve it Lee Johnson must succeed in something, which thus far evaded him during his managerial career.

The question now is whether, with this group of players, he can finally lay the ‘streaky Johnson’ moniker to rest.

Graeme Atkinson