Sunderland AFC Opinion – Much of Tony Mowbray’s good work at Sunderland has gone under the radar

Michael Lough believes Tony Mowbray should be given plenty of credit for his performance as Sunderland manager this season - regardless of where we finish

On the last day of August 2022, we all enjoyed a pleasant evening in the late summer sun as we beat Rotherham 3-0 to record our first home win of the season.

It was Tony Mowbray’s first game in charge and new signings, Abdoullah Ba, Edouard Michut, Jewison Benette and Amad Diallo were presented to the fans at half time.

That night felt like the perfect antidote to the chaos that had preceded it and fears of what life after Alex were alleviated as the lads produced a performance full of free-flowing, attacking football.

That night was also the last time we would see Ellis Simms and Ross Stewart start together and Mowbray wouldn’t have the luxury of them both appearing in the same matchday squad until our trip to Hull City on December, 17. Less than a fortnight later, Simms was recalled by Everton and less than a month later Stewart was ruled out for the season.

By making this point I am not wanting to go over the striker debate again, because quite frankly I’d bore myself doing so, but I think it’s important to highlight the challenges that the former Middlesbrough boss has faced since his arrival on Wearside.

The discourse around football in recent years has become increasingly flippant but people are all too quick to label Mowbray as a ‘dinosaur’ because of our recent poor form.

Yes, two wins in ten games is never ideal, but context is everything when evaluating the progress made under the manager. In that run we have beaten Norwich, been the only team to shut out Burnley at Turf Moor, gained a credible draw with promotion chasing Luton and were seconds away from getting all three points at home to Hull.

I accept that the home form has been far from good enough and trudging away from matches after the majority of games feeling like we’ve not got what we deserved from the match is dispiriting, but I feel that much of Mowbray’s good work has gone under the radar.

To add further context to the Stewart situation, he has only been available for selection for seven league games out of the 35 matches Mowbray has presided over.

To compound this further, he’s had to do without Corry Evans since the end of January, been without Elliott Embleton since December, and the likes of Aji Alese, Dennis Cirkin, Dan Ballard, Niall Huggins, Lynden Gooch, Eduoard Michut and Alex Pritchard have all faced spells on the sidelines at various points throughout the season.

To face all of these injury limitations as well as regularly rotating the team to ensure our young players don’t suffer extreme burnout and still be sat with an outside chance of the playoffs at this stage of the season is nothing short of impressive.

There is no doubt that our current crop of youngsters are exciting but it can often be forgotten how good Mowbray has been at blending the young lads and new signings into the squad.

On FIFA it would be quite straightforward, put all the young lads into the team from the off and everyone would hit the ground running but this is far from the reality.

Prior to this season, the most first team football Amad had played was ten games on loan at Rangers, Pierre Ekwah had never kicked a ball competitively, Michut had played six games for PSG and Trai Hume had hardly featured for us in League One and as recently as January 2022 played in the Northern Irish Premier League.

The squad has too many examples like this to name every single case individually but the squad is full of players who have had little to no first team exposure before coming to Sunderland and have had to adapt quickly.

On top of this you have the crop of players who ordinarily would be considered up and coming youngsters but have had to adopt the responsibility of senior pros.

Jack Clarke is rarely thought of as a youngster but he is only 22 and the most he had ever played was 22 games for Leeds back in 2018-19, Dan Neil only made his league debut last season but he has been asked to be the lynchpin of our midfield. Even Patrick Roberts, a relative veteran at 26 hadn’t played more than 20 games in a season since his Celtic days.

Of course, the recruitment team deserve great credit for sourcing these players and for identifying Mowbray as an ideal candidate to mould them but it is not easy to achieve consistent results with this group.

At times some of his rotations of the team have been questioned and it is telling that neither Ba or Michut have completed a full 90 minutes for Sunderland in the league, but this is smart management and has ensured we have seen the best of them.

Of course, he has got it wrong at times and against Stoke our potential frailties were ruthlessly exposed, but for every occasion he’s got it wrong, there have been more occasions where he has got it spot on.

Against Burnley, Norwich and Cardiff we produced resolute defensive displays which showed a resilience beyond our years and while shipping four goals at home against Hull and five to Stoke cannot be ignored, some of our attacking football has been brilliant at times.

The interplay between Clarke, Roberts and Amad has been a genuine joy to watch and by the end of the season we should have one hell of a goal of a season competition.

Ultimately, we will probably fall short of making the play-offs but if we do, it certainly isn’t down to Mowbray and any mutterings about him being a ‘dinosaur’ are a million miles wide of the mark.

Regardless of how we finish the season, he has regularly kept us in the top half of the table, while maintaining a great togetherness even during bad runs and developing us as a team and the players as individuals.