Phil Parkinson Straining to Keep Dark Clouds Away From Sunderland
It is a wet, windy Thursday lunchtime at Sunderland’s training ground and nervous eyes rest on a learner driver honing their reversing skills in the players’ car park.
Back in the not-so-distant days when the Academy of Light was a Premier League practice base, littered with Porsches and Bentleys, such a cameo would have been unthinkable. Now the absence of previously prominent security sentries afford this once state-of-the-art complex a slightly neglected, semi-deserted air. With no one staffing main reception, the building’s plate glass front doors are locked.
Almost three years after dropping out of English football’s top tier, and deep into the second season of an unwanted League One sojourn, the effects of some brutal cost-cutting are clearly apparent. It would, though, be very wrong to assume Sunderland is an uncared-for club.
Instead it provokes such powerful emotions that recent weeks have witnessed the eruption of an ugly civil war between supporters and the board, with the manager, Phil Parkinson, briefly threatening to become collateral damage before results improved and fans began arguing among themselves.
The learner’s clutch control appears infinitely less jerky than the recently chaotic, and highly charged, manoeuvres at the 49,000-capacity Stadium of Light.
To understand the events that prefaced the hostile fallout from a disappointing home draw with Bolton on Boxing Day, it is necessary to rewind to May 2018 when Stewart Donald, previously the owner of non-league Eastleigh, bought Sunderland from the American billionaire Ellis Short following two successive relegations. Donald’s initial plan involved an immediate return to the Championship before attracting the sort of large-scale investment he, personally, could not provide. Instead Jack Ross narrowly missed out on promotion and was sacked last October. Parkinson has since steered Sunderland, six-times English champions, to a historic nadir: mid-table in the third tier.
Matters boiled over on Boxing Day when calls for the former Bradford and Bolton manager’s head were augmented by a sometimes uneasy, social media-fuelled amalgam of various fans groups demanding Donald go too. This coalition swiftly issued a formal statement demanding he sell up.
Considering Donald has spent much of the past nine months actively, openly and forlornly attempting to find a buyer it seemed academic but he took the hint and, on Monday, issued an emotional club bulletin reiterating his intentions to depart.
As reaffirmations go it all appeared a bit bizarre. If appeasement was the aim it arguably merely deflected yet more pressure on to Parkinson’s team at a time when they are unbeaten in five games and within touching distance of a play-off place before Saturday’s home game against high-flying Wycombe.
Accordingly social media was soon ablaze with supporters arguing the case for “Donald In”, at least in the short-term. A restorative win against Lincoln had apparently softened hearts and minds towards Parkinson, while possibly reprising memories of Donald’s Wearside honeymoon when he drank with fans after joining them in replacing sun-bleached plastic seats at the Stadium of Light.
As their Newcastle counterparts discovered with Mike Ashley, owners who share beers with supporters can have clay feet but, by Thursday, the mood had mellowed to the point where the coalition issued a second, reconciliatory ‘we’re all in this together’ statement. It seems an owner who has tended to communicate directly with supporters’ leaders rather than through local reporters had made some reconnections and a tense, fragile rapprochement was reached.
Significantly any sale would be complicated by Sunderland’s £9m loan from a group of American investors, FPP, linked closely to Michael Dell of Dell computers. Donald acknowledges that, should he default on repayment, FPP will assume control of Sunderland. More immediately the loan – which Donald says he can repay – should help Parkinson reinforce the squad this month, with Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp among his attacking targets.
“We wondered what might happen when the owner made his statement but football clubs aren’t easy to sell and nothing will be done overnight,” says Parkinson, addressing a sparsely filled media room. “The chairman’s said that although he’s willing to sell, he’s still 100% committed to helping us. He wants to do everything he can to improve the squad in this window. He and the fans have had their say; now we need everyone to pull together.”
Before Christmas Parkinson looked extremely strained. Now he appears quietly confident. “Real pressure’s being at Bolton when the wages aren’t paid,” he says. “It’s a privilege to manage Sunderland.”
Strangely results have improved as the vitriol intensified. “The players have grown a hard shell,” says Parkinson, whose switch to 3-4-3 appears transformative. “It’s created a siege mentality. It helps that I never go near social media – and I tell the lads to block it out too.”
Ian Todd cannot avoid the potentially grisly bigger picture. A regular on the train north from King’s Cross, the founder member of Wear Down South, Sunderland’s London-based supporters’ association, rarely misses a home game.
“There’s always the frying pan into fire concern about ownership changes,” he says. “I’ve certainly never been as concerned about the club’s long-term future. In the past, even when things were poor on the pitch, there was relative stability in the boardroom … But I’m still hopeful of a play-off place.”
The Guardian Sport