Sunderland fan groups called for their owner and manager to leave the club in a joint statement after their draw with Bolton on Boxing Day, but since then the club have had an upturn in form and find themselves back in the play-off places.
Even by Sunderland standards, December was a dreadful month for the club – they slipped to the lowest league position in their history, manager Phil Parkinson banished arguably their most talented player, Aiden McGeady, and fan groups published a coordinated statement asking for both owner and manager to leave the club.
However, since that home draw to Bolton Wanderers, there has been a major shift on and off the pitch. Owner Stewart Donald officially announced the club was up for sale, and now they find themselves back in the play-off places.
The fan revolt and recent revival
The game that began their current unbeaten run was the reverse fixture at Doncaster Rovers. The Black Cats were backed by 4,000 travelling fans and won the game 2-1 with goals from Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire.
This performance indicated a change in application and attitude from the players and Parkinson. Ten points out of a possible twelve have followed, including an emphatic 4-0 win against then-league leaders Wycombe Wanderers.
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Sunderland now sit sixth in League One, four points ahead of Doncaster – whom they host on Friday night, live on Sky Sports Football – and only six points off the top of the table with a game in hand. Was this fan statement a masterstroke or an ill-timed, knee-jerk reaction to Parkinson’s poor start?
“The improvement in recent performances has certainly seen a big shift in Parkinson’s popularity,” says Michael Lough from the Wise Men Say podcast – a fan group who were part of the collaborative fan statement calling for Donald and Parkinson to go.
“The 4-0 win over Wycombe was widely regarded as the best we’ve played since we got relegated from the Premier League and the jubilant scenes of celebration at Doncaster and MK Dons shows how much the fans are on board with the way we are playing right now.
“However, the league table is extremely tight currently and a couple of defeats would see us slip back into mid-table, which would naturally send alarm bells ringing through sections of the fanbase.
“On the other hand, a couple of wins could see us within touching distance of the automatic promotion places, so while he might not be universally loved just yet, very few people are calling for his head.
“In terms of Donald, everything remains very much ‘as you were’. Those who wanted Donald to leave the club are still holding him to account, and those who want Donald to remain at the club still hold those views. Thankfully, the fans are more focused on footballing matters since our form has started to improve.”
The Sunderland owner is a divisive figure on Wearside, with large sections of the fan base appreciative of his contribution since taking over. However, Michael believes he has taken Sunderland as far as he can.
“The statement was intended as a direct call to action towards Stewart Donald. 15,000 supporters shared our original tweet calling for Donald to be removed.
“When Stewart Donald arrived at the club, there was a wave of optimism and enthusiasm, his open communication with the fans was welcomed and things were looking good on the pitch.
“However, as time progressed it became evident that there wasn’t much of a long-term plan for the future of the football club.”
The Parkinson era
Donald sacked Jack Ross in October with the club sat fifth in League One. Parkinson was brought in as Ross’ replacement because he had a “proven track record when it comes to achieving promotion”.
He is also a manager who does not cower in times of adversity. While at Bolton, he and his players went five months without been paid.
“You’ve got to be thick-skinned as a manager and you’ve got to be resilient,” Parkinson told Sky Sports.
“But you’ve also got to find solutions and respond in the right way, and I think we’ve done that.
“I didn’t take the criticism (from fans) personally, I understood it’s the sheer passion in the city for the club, and they’re passionately behind us at the moment and we want to keep it that way.
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“People speak about pressure a lot, but for me pressure is staff and players not being paid for months at Bolton. That was very difficult to go through. This is enjoyable, I am enjoying the challenge every single day.”
Even after the Wearsiders’ recent good form, fans are too disenchanted to get ahead of themselves. The club needs unity now more than ever, as they can ill-afford another season in the third tier.
“A third season in League One would surely see a drop off in season card renewals and an atmosphere of gloom would cling onto the club,” says Michael.