The footballing authorities are adamant they want to do all they can to complete the current season, so there will be plenty of questions for our region’s clubs to answer when matches eventually resume. In the third of a series of features encompassing all our North-East clubs, Paul Fraser assesses the five key issues Sunderland will have to address when football returns.


With an eight point gap to make up on leaders Coventry City, who also have two games in hand, the only realistic target for Sunderland to go up automatically now is to claim second spot.

The pursuit of the top two had all been going swimmingly when the Black Cats beat Bristol Rovers convincingly on February 22. That was the last victory of a run of just one defeat from 14 matches.

Having climbed from 15th to within touching distance of the top two, though, Sunderland have seen performance levels drop and after losing at Coventry the last two games have been as bad as they have been this season.

The manner of the defeat at Bristol Rovers, in the last game before the lockdown, was worrying in that Sunderland didn’t play with the sort of quality or spirit which had earned greater rewards in recent months.

They struggled to create chances and never really tested the keeper, a trait which has become familiar in recent outings, so Sunderland fans are rightly concerned as to whether or not their team can turn things around when the action resumes.

Sunderland will restart – provided it does in light of the coronavirus threat – sitting three points adrift of second placed Rotherham, albeit they have played a game more than the Millers.

While that sounds easy enough to make up, it must be remembered that Sunderland are down in seventh and those above them – Oxford, Portsmouth, Peterborough and Fleetwood – have a game in hand on Phil Parkinson’s side and all have the same idea.

Sunderland have eight matches remaining to deliver what Parkinson was instructed to do when he took over from Jack Ross – and that is to deliver promotion via the play-offs rather than the automatic places.


Parkinson signed a two-and-a-half year deal when he took over from Ross in November, so he will still have two more seasons to run on the contract once this season is over.

Everyone knows in football that such contracts can soon be ended, and clearly he knew what was important to Sunderland when he took over: Promotion.

However, despite the criticism that led to him being urged to leave during a Boxing Day draw with Bolton, Parkinson has shown enough in the period since to suggest he knows how to get Sunderland heading in the right direction.

Provided he can turn this four match blip around quickly and Sunderland can remain in the promotion mix up for the last eight matches, then he will have done a decent enough job in turning things around after his horrendous start as manager.

New managers should be given time to implement their own ideas on a squad and he was given that after an initial period, which saw him go on a run of just one win from 12 games in all competitions, that led to supporters turning on him in numbers over Christmas.

The reaction was perfect. After the win at Doncaster in the final game of 2019, Sunderland impressed and he found a formula and consistency in his selection to deliver results. In recent games he has been forced to changes things in a bid to get them back on track. That has had an impact on results.

If Sunderland don’t go up there are sure to be more calls from some quarters for him to go, but Parkinson has a track record of guiding teams to promotion from League One and there have been plenty of signs since the turn of the year he can do that on Wearside. He arguably deserves another crack regardless.


If Parkinson’s contract is secure for another couple of years, there is not so much security for a number of the players he has at his disposal.

There are 13 players whose contracts with the Black Cats are due to expire, including the likes of Bailey Wright, Antoine Semenyo and Declan John who are all on loan.

Clearly there are plenty of discussions to be had as to who will stay and who will go, with Sunderland reluctant to finalise new deals with players until they know what division they are playing in.

That could suit some, but it could also be a hindrance to the promotion push because there is so much uncertainty hanging around. It is unusual for big clubs like Sunderland, even in League One, to have such a hefty number of first team players running out of contract.

Goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin is one of those and he is attracting interest from higher leagues, while Luke O’Nien is another who has caught the eye of other clubs. There is unlikely to be a shortage of suitors for Sunderland’s players.

Duncan Watmore, who has had a nightmare with injuries over the years, is one of those along with Alim Ozturk, Tom Flanagan and Chris Maguire, all of whom have been starting regularly under Parkinson.

There is also the prospect of Aiden McGeady returning to Sunderland from his loan at Charlton, although Parkinson will be keen to move the Republic of Ireland international on again as soon as he returns to the Academy of Light.


Given the huge number of contracts up for renewal it seems likely that Sunderland will be heading into another close-season of reasonable change.

That was something the club has wanted to guard against since addressing the financial problems of a couple of years ago when they dropped out of the Premier League.

It seems pretty certain they will have another hectic time again because Parkinson will have some big decisions to make – and the players may want to move elsewhere too.

Clearly the division Sunderland will be playing in will have a big bearing on what happens, but Parkinson will also want to make sure he has a group of players he knows suits the way he wants his team to play.

He made some progress in January, but only Josh Scowen was signed permanently, with Kyle Lafferty and Tommy Smith handed short-term deals. The rest were loans.

Parkinson is a big believer in getting a team to play in a way that suits the players he has at his disposal, but if he can bring in the men he wants then Sunderland will probably start to play in a style he would actually prefer.


It is now three months since Donald revealed he was looking to sell the club having become frustrated with the anger shown towards him from supporters. Things do seem to have gone quiet, but it remains the same situation and he would be willing to let someone else takeover.

The close-season seems a logical time for Donald to sell if there is a suitable buyer, although that could depend largely on what happens in the promotion race.

Clearly Sunderland are a more attractive proposition if they are playing in the Championship, just a rung away from the Premier League riches.

But Donald has still received interest during the last few months, and he claims that increased following the finalisation of an investment deal from FPP Sunderland, which saw a £10m loan given to Donald’s holding company, Madrox Partners.

Donald acquired Sunderland in the summer of 2018 and he was close to selling to real estate businessman Mark Campbell last summer, only for the deal to collapse at the last minute following Sunderland’s failure to beat Charlton in the League One play-off final at Wembley.

American billionaires Robert Platek, John Phelan and Glenn Fuhrman are also known to have previously had discussions aimed at buying Sunderland, but that has gone quiet. Now Donald, who is still willing to move on, is just waiting to see what happens in the remaining games of the season to decide what happens next.