Sunderland: Lee Johnson's Black Cats hoping for new beginnings

Former Sunderland striker Stephen Elliott discusses his belief that the appointments of Lee Johnson and Kristjaan Speakman can change the Black Cats' fortunes on and off the pitch; Watch Ipswich vs Sunderland live on Sky Sports Football from 7.30pm on Tuesday; Kick off 7.45pm

Sunderland's Lee Johnson is planning for all eventualities in the transfer market this month

Even in this strangest of years, it has been the same old story at Sunderland.

Another year has passed, another new manager has come in, another team are underperforming on the pitch, and another takeover is currently hanging in balance - uncertainty has been a constant on Wearside for a few years now, but are better times ahead?

Since the club's relegation from the Premier League in 2017, it has been a downward trajectory. There have been the odd glimpses of progress throughout the past few seasons, but they are mostly always followed by an abject on-field performance or off-field gaffe.

But after years of apathy and disappointment, the club are turning to a fresh system to try and finally turn the ship around.

In December, Lee Johnson became Sunderland's 11th manager in 10 years following the sacking of Phil Parkinson.

Sunderland's Charlie Wyke (left) and Milton Keynes Dons' Warren O'Hora battle for the ball during the Sky Bet League One match at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland.
Image: Sunderland striker Charlie Wyke.,

You could claim that Parkinson had been unlucky. The curtailment of last season's League One campaign due to Covid-19 and the eventual league standings being decided by points-per-game led to Sunderland falling to eighth, even though they had achieved the same points (59) as eventual play-off winners Wycombe.

But a below-average start to this campaign accompanied with turgid defensive football proved too much for the club's hierarchy, and Parkinson's thirteen-month reign came to an end.

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"Phil Parkinson's biggest error was that he signed too many players of similar ilk," says former Sunderland striker Stephen Elliott, who helped the Black Cats to promotion to the Premier League under Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane respectively. "His team played a very one-dimensional style that didn't bring success consistently.

"I feel Lee Johnson has come in and recognised that the team are lacking vital elements needed for a side to be successful in this division."

Johnson's head coach appointment was a week after the club's CEO Jim Rodwell announced that Birmingham City's academy director, Kristjaan Speakman, was to become the club's new sporting director.

The club previously had a similar structure back in 2013 with Roberto De Fanti working as a director of football alongside head coach Paolo Di Canio. De Fanti was soon replaced by Lee Congerton, who's relationship with then head coach Gus Poyet was frosty, and he ended up quitting the club alongside Dick Advocaat after just 18 months in the role. That experiment didn't end well, but Elliott believes this internal shift will bring better results than last time.

"The appointment of Speakman could be a good thing," he continues. "The club have had very little structure in important areas, and this is something that Speakman has been brought in to fix.

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"On the pitch though, providing that he and Johnson can be giving enough to spend to bring in the players they want, it could be positive for the club. I believe that they have a template for players in their minds that can push the club forward, rather than just signing players without thinking.

"Carl Winchester has already come in the building and hopefully, he can bring a bit more running power that is lacking in the current squad, but there is a lot more needed."

The success of both Speakman and Johnson does rely heavily on fresh investment, something current chairman Stewart Donald has been looking for since officially putting the club up for sale in December 2019.

On Christmas Eve of 2020, Sunderland officials issued a statement confirming Kyril Louis-Dreyfus had signed a deal with Donald to become the club's new majority shareholder.

All appropriate paperwork was submitted to the EFL before the end of last year, but the governing body is yet to formally ratify the change of ownership. This means Donald currently remains in charge, much to the disgruntlement of many fans.

"The takeover seems to be going on and on indefinitely and it's very difficult for the supporters to feel positive until it happens, as it's likely the new signings that are needed won't be seen until the new investment has arrived," says Elliott.

On the pitch, Johnson has had a mixed start to his tenure; winning five, drawing three, and losing two of his first 10 games. He has also had his first few weeks disrupted by a Covid outbreak at the club, and Elliott remains pragmatic about how things are going.

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Highlights of the Sky Bet League One match between Sunderland and Shrewsbury Town

"Initially Johnson's start was decent, with the 4-0 win at Lincoln springing to mind, however in recent weeks, the team have resorted to performances that are too like what we saw under Parkinson," he adds.

"A big positive however is that Johnson has managed to get Charlie Wyke firing. Hopefully, this continues as his goals will be hugely important if Sunderland are to go up."

Goals from Sunderland's No 9 will be key to their promotion push. This is an area the Black Cats have struggled with since the controversial sale of Josh Maja in January 2019, but Johnson seems to have got a tune out of Wyke who has scored six goals in six league games since the new manager's arrival.

The former Bristol City chief has also recalled exiled Aiden McGeady back to the first-team setup. The 34-year-old was banished from first-team duties by Parkinson and hadn't played since November 2019, but one of the first phone calls Johnson made as manager was to recall the former Republic of Ireland international.

McGeady brings much-needed flair to an often stale Sunderland side, and Johnson will be hoping his return can give the squad an extra edge as they move into the back end of the season.

"If the club doesn't go up this year then it may not be a huge disaster," opines Elliott.

"It will of course be a failure, but there are a lot of players out of contract, and it may give the club a chance to clear up a lot of wages and bring in a better quality of player."

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