Robbie Stockdale will take charge of his first game as Sunderland’s caretaker manager tomorrow when, along with Billy McKinlay, he presides over the club’s Tees-Wear derby with Middlesbrough. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson was at his first press conference yesterday to ask the question on everyone’s lips


WHAT do Sunderland Football Club and the Department of Education have in common? Over the years, they’ve both employed plenty of caretakers. It’s a hoary old joke, but it doesn’t half ring true.

Robbie Stockdale and Billy McKinlay will become the first joint caretaker duo to take charge of one of Sunderland’s first-team games when they preside over tomorrow’s Tees-Wear derby at the Riverside, but they are merely adhering to a long-established tradition that was first enacted in November 1972 when Billy Elliott was installed in temporary charge. Elliott failed to win any of his four matches and was hastily shuffled aside for Bob Stokoe. Seven months later, Stokoe was lifting the FA Cup.

Loading article content

Suffice to say, things haven’t always turned out so smoothly. This is Sunderland’s 12th spell under caretaker management, with the cast list of stand-ins ranging from the weird to the wonderful. Some, like Dick Advocaat and Malcolm Crosby, turned their caretaker reign into a longer-term arrangement. Others, like Niall Quinn and Eric Black, never really wanted the job in the first place. Go further back, and you’ll find names like Ian MacFarlane and Dave Merrington, long forgotten in the mists of time.

All were suddenly promoted to the top job; all no doubt found themselves answering the same questions that were levelled at Stockdale yesterday. If you work in North-East football writing for any period of time, you quickly learn how the whole caretaker management thing works.

Stockdale is Sunderland’s seventh caretaker manager during my time at The Northern Echo, and the theatrics of the opening press conference are always the same. A quick introduction, a chat about the unexpected nature of a recent dismissal, then the only question that anyone really wants answering. “Do you want the job full-time?”

Occasionally, a caretaker will take the bull by the horns and use his opening meeting with the press as a Dragons Den-style opportunity for a job pitch. Every now and then, they’ll make it crystal clear that they couldn’t think of anything worse than being a manager on a long-term basis. More often than not, though, you get what happened yesterday.

Stockdale saw the question coming a mile off, and responded with the kind of straight bat that would have made Geoffrey Boycott proud. To be fair, he did it with a smile on his face, but this was not going to be a day for a nudge in the direction of chief executive Martin Bain.

“Me and Billy came into a meeting with Martin on Wednesday, and he said he would like us to take the team for Sunday,” said Stockdale, resplendent in official club attire. “That’s as far as we know, and I’ve made it clear we won’t want any discussions beyond that. I genuinely haven’t had a discussion about what happens after the weekend.”

But as an aspiring coach who has risen from the academy ranks to a senior position within the first-team set-up, wouldn’t Stockdale jump at the chance to lead a club like Sunderland, albeit it with the myriad problems that have left the club just two places off the foot of the Championship table.

Isn’t management a major ambition for the future? “Yes, it would be down the line,” he conceded. “But again, I’m not thinking about anything beyond Sunday.”

Time to admit defeat and change tack. In fairness to Stockdale, he is probably wise to keep his counsel at the moment. If he does want the job permanently, either with his fellow caretaker McKinlay or on his own, he has been around football long enough to know that his prospects will be heavily shaped by what happens on the field tomorrow.

If he can guide Sunderland to only their second league victory of the season, suddenly his candidature will look considerably more appealing. If, however, his return to Teesside, where he began his career in Middlesbrough’s youth ranks, results in a defeat, it is hard to see how Bain can extend his tenure.

Like the conveyor belt of managers that have passed through the Academy of Light before him, he will be judged on results. And if he doesn’t want a full-time position, he can hardly come out and say so when he needs to instil some confidence and pride in his players ahead of tomorrow’s lunch-time showdown.

Confidence, pride, belief. All three have been lacking in Sunderland’s play this season, and with a conviction that belies his softly-spoken approach, Stockdale conceded that the players have some making up to do when they take to the field at the Riverside.

To Grayson, whose fate was decided when they were unable to end a ten-and-a-half month wait for a home win on Tuesday. To themselves. But most importantly to the fans who have understandably reached the end of their tether in the last few weeks. Stockdale wasn’t about to hang his squad out to dry yesterday, but neither was he willing to absolve them of blame.

“There will certainly be disappointment, although you’d have to ask the players if they guilty,” he said. “I haven’t seen a lack of effort or anything like that in the games. We go to Brentford and we’re 3-1 up. It wasn’t through a lack of trying that we didn’t win the game – it was the same for the previous two home games – but the glaringly obvious thing is that we need to stop conceding as many goals.

“This is a brilliant game for us because it’s a derby game and they always have a different feel. We will sell out the away end, and the fans will come in expectation. We want to give them something back – they deserve it.”

They’ve deserved it for the past decade though, and Sunderland have failed to deliver. Yes, there was a ten-year spell in the top-flight that is not to be sniffed at. But there have been so many false dawns, so many broken promises and dreams that were dashed that it is exceptionally difficult to convince any fan that they should not give up.

What is there to cling to and continue believing in? Why should the future be any better than the past when eight managers have passed through the exit door in the last six years and the club is owned by someone who has upped sticks to the United States and remains desperate to sell?

“It’s still a great job to take for somebody,” said Stockdale. “The infrastructure here is good, although league position and the results probably don’t reflect it.

“I think there is quality in the changing room, and good characters in there too. There is a good youth set-up at the academy. You’ve got a fantastic stadium, so I don’t really need to go on. At some point, someone will come in here and make a real success of things.”

Do you want that man to be you Robbie? In true caretaker tradition, he was not about to say.