On 12th December 2023, Sunderland beat Leeds United in front of a raucous crowd at the Stadium of Light.
That night, the players executed the game plan to perfection, the fans were energised and there was a sense of optimism for the future.
Fast forward just 38 days and both Hull City’s winner and the full-time whistle were met with a chorus of boos and chants of ‘you’re getting sacked in the morning’ directed towards Michael Beale.
If you are an outsider, I get how fickle this sounds, especially when, as Beale was only too quick to remind us, we still have 18 games remaining and sit just three points outside the play-offs.
But like all things in football, context is everything and recent events have led to everything from supporters voicing their frustration inside the ground to #BealeOut trending on Twitter.
Before I go on to talk about the validity of the criticism, I think it’s fair to acknowledge that the former Rangers man is still operating under the same limitations as Tony Mowbray, and the squad has the same gaps and lack of quality in key areas.
However, this leads me nicely on to my first issue with the Beale appointment.
Mowbray was sacked for one of two reasons, either the club didn’t approve of his comments about the need for experience in key positions, or they deemed being in ninth place and three points off the play-offs as not good enough.
In either scenario Beale was a curious appointment, given his lack of track record in developing youngsters or winning titles/promotions.
Even the more generous Rangers supporters bemoaned his lack of a concrete style of play, his bullish press conferences, where he often refused to accept blame and his poor record in the transfer market.
Obviously, he will have no say in transfers while at Sunderland but his other attributes are not good enough on their own to merit a job of this magnitude.
What we needed was a coach with a clear blueprint of playing attacking, progressive football, because quite honestly there’s few other ways we can play.
Either that or we needed a head coach with a reputation for being brilliant at working with youngsters and instead we’ve got a real life representation of a meeting that could’ve been an email.
His lack of overarching footballing identity could easily be forgiven, if he had come in, taken a look at the team and kept our attacking blueprint with the odd tweak to improve it, but so far we have seen quite the opposite.
As Chris Weatherspoon pointed out on Monday’s podcast, our underlying numbers have slightly improved defensively but worryingly our xG, touches in the box etc has nosedived since Beale’s appointment. Ironically, the first 20 minutes or so of our 3-0 defeat to Coventry was probably the best, most attacking football we’ve seen under him so far.
The data wouldn’t be too much of a concern if the football wasn’t as overtly stodgy and horrible to watch, but in his seven games in charge, when have we actually played well?
Hull away was an impressive result and our defensive shape was very good, but much like the game the other night it probably could have gone either way. We played well for a half against Preston and scored two lovely goals, but the second half drop off which many at the time (including yours truly) thought was planned, was fairly alarming.
Rotherham was a brutal watch, where only a deflected strike from Jack Clarke saved us from a tame defeat. Against Newcastle, our game plan appeared to be ‘just don’t get battered lads’, and against Ipswich we capitulated as soon as we went 2-1 down.
Again, poor performances can be caveated if you are grinding out results and poor results can be excused if you can see progress in the performances but if neither are being achieved, it doesn’t bode well.
The above makes you really question the logic of sacking Mowbray if an immediate improvement was unattainable, Mike Dodds showed against Leeds that we are capable of sticking to a well thought out game plan as well as the more off the cuff football we saw at times under our previous head coach.
What was the point of sacking a well-loved, respected guy for this? If the poor results and football weren’t hard enough to swallow, the way Beale has conducted himself certainly is.
On a personal level I understand it’s deeply unpleasant to have thousands of fans wanting you to lose your job, but that does not excuse gaslighting the fans.
Saying: “I think the fans have to get behind the players on the park, because they’re a young group and I don’t think they realise the strength of their support to that young group in there” is just disingenuous and borderline insulting.
Yes, in an ideal world the fans would give nothing but 100% support at all times, but to attempt to essentially give us a lecture on the welfare of the players when the chants were aimed at him and only him shows a level of arrogance that never goes down well on Wearside.
It is also interesting to note that the support of our young players didn’t appear to be his top priority when digging out Aouchiche after the Ipswich game or when he said, “Life got really real for everyone in our young team today, so we need to use that and go to work.
“If we felt we were closer, or individuals felt they were closer to playing at that level regularly, then today was a bit of an eye opener” after our loss to Newcastle.
This again highlights his tendency to say whatever will preserve his reputation in that moment and this lack of accountability is a big red flag so early on in a tenure.
Having said all of that, there are clearly bigger issues at the club than Michael Beale.
I don’t need to remind anyone of the farce that unfolded in the run-up to the Newcastle game, but perhaps more alarmingly, we are making mistakes that are having a direct impact on our on field displays.
Our recruitment has considerably improved since Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Kristian Speakman arrived at the club, but over the past 12 months or so, a worrying trend has developed where we haven’t signed players anywhere near capable of starting every week.
Of the four players we signed last January, only Pierre Ekwah is in the first-team picture, and of the signings we made in the summer, only Jobe Bellingham is a regular starter.
For context, Bellingham has started 26 league games so far this season and the other nine signings have started just 32 league games between them.
This isn’t ideal when you consider that the point of our recruitment structure is to bring in high potential players so we can either gain promotion with them, or be able to raise funds to bring in quality replacements if they have to leave.
If our signings aren’t playing regular first-team football and improving both as individuals and making the team better, how are we supposed to bring in better players in the future and kick on, if they aren’t good enough to take us up or bring in the money to get us there?
Even though Beale is more a symptom of our downturn in fortunes than the cause, his appointment and the fall out from it has lost them a lot of goodwill with supporters and opened themselves up to further scrutiny.
When you publicly talk about a dedication to high performance and an obsession with progression, you can’t then meekly accept the drop off we have seen recently.
When you publicly talk about the need for experience and name drop Danny Batth, Alex Pritchard, and Correy Evans, before trying to force them out of the door, you invite questions about what it is we’re trying to achieve.
Therefore, I don’t think we are being fickle to demand better, after all that’s what the owners allegedly want us to do.
It is valid to say that we’re only three points off the play-offs but the league is so compact that a prolonged bad run could see us languish in midtable.
The club will probably persist with Beale for now, but to what end? Nothing we have seen so far has shown us that he is capable of bringing an exciting brand of football to the club, a shred of accountability or a sign that results will soon improve.
This is the longest we have been outside of the top flight in our history and we shouldn’t allow the League One days to be a yardstick for our achievements.
If this continues for much longer, the crowds will dwindle, people will lose enthusiasm and all the momentum we’ve built will be lost.
If the club is as obsessed with progression as they claim, they will act swiftly to address the issues throughout the squad and own the mistake they’ve made in hiring Beale.
Over to you, Sunderland AFC.