Sunderland AFC Opinion – Recent improvements must set the standard for the rest of the season

Michael Lough on how the tide may be turning for Michael Beale

Sometimes managerial reigns can turn on the flip of a coin when you least expect it. Just three games ago, Michael Beale’s spell at Sunderland was on the brink of looking untenable – now we sit just one point off sixth-place Norwich City, where a win tonight at Huddersfield Town could propel us back into the play-off picture.

It hasn’t been convincing at times. Although we turned Stoke City over pretty convincingly in the end, if they’d taken one of their good opportunities at 0-0, things could’ve been very different. In the following game if Nazariy Rusyn’s effort had been safely gathered by Middlesbrough’s goalkeeper, the poor second half display would have given fans greater cause for concern.

The above is not to dig Beale out, I could apply this to a great deal of managers. In recent times, our promotion-winning manager, Alex Neil was a couple of Nathan Broadhead stoppage-time winners away from finishing outside the play-offs altogether.

I raised the above point to highlight how things seem to be turning in recent weeks while at the same time remaining quite fragile.

After the Hull game I wrote an article about why I thought Beale’s time as head coach was in danger of reaching a natural conclusion despite being in the role for a little over a month.

Therefore, it would be reactive in the extreme for me to suddenly proclaim that the former Rangers boss is the man to take us back to the Premier League, but it would equally be pig-headed of me not to acknowledge the positive steps we’ve taken in recent weeks.

There’s an argument to be made that we still haven’t strung together a performance over 90 minutes since Beale came in, against Stoke we were fairly average in a first half that saw the visitors have the better chances before Mason Burstow netted his first goal for the club. In the second half we showed a clinical side by scoring two goals in relatively quick succession, in an improved second half display.

Against Boro we controlled much of the first half before completely surrendering that control in the second and we can consider ourselves lucky to emerge with a point.

Saturday was like a more extreme version of the Stoke game, going a goal down at the end of a drab, uninspiring first half performance, but after the break we saw a blistering 20-minute spell where Plymouth simply couldn’t live with us. Suddenly, there was intensity, our passing was crisper, we looked sharper, and our flair players were running at their defence at will, resulting in three superb goals.

Of all our wins under Beale, this win felt significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, the potent attacking football gave us hope that we can supplement a more disciplined defensive shape with good, front-foot style of play.

Throughout his time at the club a big criticism of Beale has been the lateness of his substitutions, but on Saturday he brought on Chris Rigg and Jobe Bellingham after 65 minutes and he was rewarded with two very good performances and an exceptional goal from Jobe.

It was also a good decision to leave Jobe out of the starting XI for the Plymouth game and we reaped the rewards of Bellingham coming off the bench feeling fresh.

Perhaps even more significantly, the first building blocks of a relationship between Beale and the fans were cemented with the Stadium of Light joining in with a minute-long applause in support of his niece, Poppy who has tragically been diagnosed with cancer.

This gesture clearly touched him, and he was quick to thank the supporters and their gesture and in recent days has commented on how the environment for the players can be so good when the crowd is behind him and the players.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that all is suddenly great now, but it was important for Beale to see that Sunderland fans are passionate about their team, but more importantly we are a community-oriented club that rally together to show support during tough times.

As I said at the start, I am still not convinced that we have the right man in charge, but Beale has given himself some foundations on which he can build trust and hope for the future.

Our next two games represent a huge opportunity to cement a play-off place. Huddersfield may have beaten us at the SOL, recently dispatched Sheffield Wednesday 4-0 and given Southampton a scare, but they are 21st in the league and have won just two in ten.

Birmingham sit in 18th at the time of writing and have won only two games in the league since Tony Mowbray took charge at the start of January.

If we are to achieve a play-off spot, we will have to put a good run of form together. Six points from our next two would be fantastic, but even a win and a draw would make it three wins in five games and five unbeaten.

In my opinion, Rome wasn’t built in a day and I still feel that Beale gave himself a mountain to climb with his on and off field decisions since arriving on Wearside. However, recent weeks have given himself some room for manoeuvre – two good results would go a long way to turning the tide of public opinion in his favour.