HE won’t admit it, but as he peered out from his technical area on Boxing Day, listening to the Stadium of Light crowd chant their support for Kevin Phillips, Phil Parkinson must have feared his time was up.

A couple of days later, his position as Sunderland manager became even more precarious when the club’s four leading supporters’ groups committed their misgivings over his suitability for the role to print. Much has been made of the fans’ demands for Stewart Donald to sell up, but it is worth remembering that Parkinson was also thrown under the bus.

“As the chants for Super Kev reverberated around the stadium, it became clear that the fans do not agree with the chosen appointment of Phil Parkinson,” said the supporters’ statement.

“When he took a defender off for another defender, the venom was too much for many to conceal. We were playing out for a clean sheet against a team that were nearly out of business less than six months ago. For our club to move forward now, change needs to happen on the pitch, in the dugout and in the boardroom.”

The Bolton game was portrayed as a low point, yet while it might not have been appreciated at the time, Parkinson’s process of regeneration had already begun. Just over a month on, and the Sunderland boss has overseen a run of nine unbeaten matches, with five of those games featuring a clean sheet. The Black Cats have risen eight places from where they found themselves on Boxing Day, are back in the play-off places and have closed to within five points of top spot. Parkinson deserves a huge amount of credit for driving that change.

Faced with the mounting anger that exploded so viscerally last month, it would have been easy for the Sunderland boss to panic or dramatically change tack. Instead, he stuck to the principles and beliefs that had brought him success at League One level in the past. Perhaps, instead of being an uninspired appointment, he is turning out to be the steady pair of hands that Sunderland desperately needed following the dismissal of Jack Ross.

What has Parkinson done to change things? The most obvious switch has been the move to a five-man defence rather than a flat back four, something Ross toyed with on a number of occasions but never quite threw his full weight behind. From an early stage of his tenure, Parkinson identified Sunderland were shipping too many goals, particularly from set-pieces.

By fielding an extra centre-half, he tightened things up at the heart of defence, and in Jordan Willis and Joel Lynch in particular, he has relied on defenders who know how to deal with the aerial bombardment that is par for the course in the third tier. In Bailey Wright, he looks to have recruited another defender who will not be perturbed by the kind of conditions and opposition tactics Sunderland encountered at Tranmere on Wednesday night.

Sunderland’s defending has improved markedly in the last month, but as Parkinson was at pains to point out in his post-match debrief at Prenton Park, stopping the opposition from scoring is not solely a job for the goalkeeper and back five.

He hasn’t said so publicly, but it is understood Parkinson was alarmed by his squad’s poor fitness levels when he arrived at the Academy of Light. He didn’t feel they were energetic enough to get around the field, hassling and harrying the opposition, something he feels is essential in League One. It has taken time, but he has gradually raised the overall fitness of his players to a level he is much more comfortable with.

He has also jettisoned some of the less agile members of his squad – Dylan McGeouch, Grant Leadbitter, Will Grigg – and abandoned the kind of chopping and changing Ross felt was necessary given the fixture demands in League One. Parkinson trusts his players are fit enough to cope with three games in a week, and keeps his tinkering to a minimum. It is not a coincidence that in the last nine matches, Sunderland’s starting line-up has pretty much been unchanged.

His biggest move was to publicly freeze out Aiden McGeady, and his decisive approach to the Irishman has had two major benefits. First, it removed a divisive figure from the dressing room, improved the harmony of the squad and powerfully asserted Parkinson’s authority over his players. Second, it stripped Sunderland’s starting line-up of a player who, for all his undoubted technical ability, slowed down play and hampered his team-mates’ ability to press high up the field. McGeady was a match-winner, but he forced the Black Cats to attack in a certain way. Now he is gone, Parkinson’s side is a slicker, more energetic proposition.

It must be stated at this point that nothing has been achieved yet. Sunderland’s next two matches pit them against two of their main promotion rivals in Portsmouth and Ipswich, and things will look different again if they lose those games.

However, from a point of seemingly no return, Parkinson has held his nerve and propelled Sunderland back into the promotion mix. When his appointment was announced, the Black Cats’ owners stated they had gone for someone who knew what was needed to win promotion from League One. Perhaps they knew what they were doing after all.


JURGEN KLOPP has been a hugely positive influence on English football, but the Liverpool manager’s response to his side’s forthcoming FA Cup fourth-round replay with Shrewsbury Town has made him come across like a petulant child.

True, the need to play a replay in what was supposed to be a winter break is not ideal. But here’s a novel thought, if you don’t want the extra game, why not beat League One opposition at the first time of asking?