Melodrama is never too far away on Wearside. Yet, even based on the standards set by Sunderland AFC, these last few weeks have been rather extraordinary.
Picture the scene, you are in charge of hiring and firing at a football club, you have engaged a Head Coach who is popular with supporters, respected for their honesty, someone who far exceeds expectations by reaching the Play-offs during your club’s return to the Championship (with the youngest squad in the division) and by nearly all available metrics continues to make improvements with an even younger squad – what do you do?
Of course, it’s obvious really, you sack him.
A slightly glib view lacking context? Almost certainly, but at its simplest this is indeed the reality of the last 18 days or so.
If we go in search of logic, the Black Cats’ decision to dismiss Tony Mowbray would be more palatable if a marked improvement on the Teessider had been immediately lined up. ‘That must surely be the case’ was the general Twitter cry from those looking to instantly defend the sacking at the time.
For those behind the scenes at SR5, there was credit in the bank. As such, even those supporters loyal to Mowbray assumed this was the moment Kyril Louis-Dreyfus would make a quick-fire statement of intent. The club was being prepared to be propelled forward once again. This was the moment. It would justify what on the face of it seemed an unforgiving move even in an unforgiving sport such as this.
Alas the much-heralded succession planning that saw top talent such as Francesco Farioli linked with the club in the summer, a graduate of the Robert De Zerbi school of football, did not immediately come up trumps. Indeed, when judged by his standards, it remains to be seen whether it has now.
Let us be clear, not every club replaces managers quickly and swift recruitment is not in itself a marker of success. Some of Sunderland’s opponents in this league have equally taken their time recently when searching across the manager job market.
Yet, not every club is at pains to frequently point out how much it relies upon data analytics and the constant tracking of players and coaches. In contrast, you must only look at the turnaround at Nottingham Forest – Steve Cooper walked out the door in the morning and Nuno Espirito Santo walked in almost immediately – to see what decisiveness can look like in football. It is more important to make the right decision than to hastily make the wrong one though. No one can deny that.
As such, with the likes of the much-vaunted Will Still, Head Coach at Reims, being touted as the number one contender in the press and the interim man in charge Mike Dodds securing a couple of back-to-back victories, patience seemed a luxury that Sunderland could indeed now afford. The candidates appeared multilingual, on the up and all in all a reflection of a more modern era Sunderland state they are striving for. Mowbray’s dismissal was beginning to appear like it may have been a shrewd move.
It may still.
However, with the club inferring that contingencies are always in the back pocket for emergencies, well this seems to fly in the face of a lengthy recruitment process with multiple interviews set across a fortnight, especially one that turns up someone unemployed after being unceremoniously dismissed from his last job. Perhaps a more honest assessment of where things were at would have been more appreciated than the degree of spin it feels like we got instead.
Let us also tackle the optics of having a replacement lined up. With validation you could describe this as being disrespectful to the outgoing employee. It could be couched as going against the values of the ownership group hence approaches made to potential candidates took place after Mogga’s P45 was issued.
Indeed Kristjaan Speakman, Sunderland’s Sporting Director, has confirmed that position previously in the wake of Lee Johnson’s departure. On the subject of being discourteous, the club understandably also spoke of how “extremely disappointed…” they were in the manner of Alex’s Neil’s exit back in August 2022 which saw him sitting in the stands at Stoke before leaving the Black Cats to join the Potters. With some justification, many supporters were quick to turn on the Scot for his actions too.
Strange then that the owners seem now happy to employ Michael Beale as Tony Mowbray’s replacement as Head Coach. For those uninitiated on the subject Beale stated in response to being linked with the Wolves job during his extremely short stint at QPR that, “Integrity and loyalty are big things for me, and if they are the values you live by you have to be strong. I have been all-in here and I have asked other people to be all-in so I can’t be the first person to run away from the ship.” Four weeks later – following would you believe a picture taken in the stands at Ibrox while still employed by the Hoops – Beale left to join Rangers, a job he would subsequently fail at.
When you come third in a two-horse race, win percentages do not tell you the full story.
So, for all of Louis-Dreyfus’ talk of demanding a ‘high performance culture’, it is clear that this culture does not extend to demanding integrity from his new Head Coach. Perhaps it is naïve to think it should. Though it would seem fairly evident that in the event Beale is successful on Wearside he will drop the club quicker than the time it takes Forest to appoint a new manager. You might say that is football and of course that is true, to an extent. Not many Head Coaches leave their first job after just over a dozen matches though. Fewer still do so after public exclamations of loyalty.
Beale has set his own precedent here and Sunderland’s young squad will be alive to that when they listen to him coaching them about the club’s values as well as tactics.
The manner of Beale’s arrival and the fact that his own actions have caused him to be one of the most unpopular appointments in recent years suggests that he will have an uphill battle in turning public opinion around here. That is not to say it is impossible. It is clear for all his detractors, arguably relating more to his character than his ability, there are those within the game who are happy to sing his praises and that provides some hope to cling to.
Steven Gerrard once said, “it would take me 15 to 20 years to become as good as Michael Beale…”. Obviously, victories on the pitch, as with most matters in football, can help turn any negative into a positive. A win on Saturday against Coventry would be welcomed by all concerned but that cannot alter the perception of someone’s character in the long term.
In the professional sense, Sunderland AFC may have employed a talented coach on an upwards trajectory who’s stint in charge of Rangers was simply a blip on an otherwise reputable CV. They may even have engaged an individual who is tactically equal to or perhaps even superior to his predecessor.
Yet, in this moment at least, it is surely justifiable to remain cynical of someone who past evidence shows, when measured up against the character of Tony Mowbray, falls considerably short.
Over to Michael Beale to prove the ‘doubters’ wrong.