If anyone was hoping for a bit of peace and quiet before the festive football programme began in earnest, they’ll be sadly disappointed.
Since our largely uneventful stalemate with Millwall, Sunderland have drawn Newcastle in the FA Cup for the first time since massive lads fan Anthony Eden was Prime Minister (wey he was born in County Durham anyway) and, on Monday night, the club sacked Tony Mowbray.
There are a number of reasons both for and against his dismissal but the comments on social media overwhelmingly demonstrated the rapport he built with the fans during his tenure.
This scenario seemed rather unlikely when he was appointed, at the time the consensus was that he’d done a good job at Blackburn but he was a rather uninspiring choice.
I remember being broadly in favour of the appointment, not only because of the league position he had achieved in Lancashire but also because of his track record of developing young players and man management skills.
I certainly did not expect us to finish the season in the play-offs though, and ironically if we had finished comfortably in mid-table, this season would be seen as making steady progress and being in contention for the top six seen as a plus.
Before I go into boring numbers and rationale behind Mowbray’s departure, I would like to say that I was a big fan of his during his time on Wearside and I don’t think we’ve had such a likeable man in the dugout for a long time.
What he achieved last season was remarkable, given the youth of the squad, Ross Stewart’s long-term injury woes, a lack of fit centre halves and an even greater lack of height, it was mental that we finished as high as we did.
The wins at West Brom and Preston were truly magical days and seeing a packed out Stadium of Light rocking for the semi-final first leg against Luton gave everyone a real taste of the club we have the potential to be.
The football we played was fantastic at times and we ended the season with just one defeat in 11 games.
Sadly this season, things have felt a little stale, Christmas decorations have gone up and we still haven’t seen a goal from a recognised striker this season, Our away form has fallen off a cliff and our 2-1 home reversal to Huddersfield showed that we can still lack the ability to break teams down at home.
We’ve gone from looking like an exciting side to one lacking in ideas and with Leeds and West Brom on the horizon our three-point gap from the play-off places could soon be extended.
Is Mowbray solely to blame for this? Not by a long shot. Of course, he has to find a way to get the best out of the players at his disposal and our football has been one dimensional lately but there are some wider factors at play,
Our recruitment has largely been a net positive over the past couple of seasons however, the last two windows have continued to rightly raise questions as well as attract plaudits. Although we finished the season in sixth place, some of the current cracks were evident as far back as the start of the year.
Pierre Ekwah has been a great bit of business overall but it took him until after a Good Friday horror show against Hull to show the form we now know him to be capable of. And, in the past few weeks, the strain of having to adopt the role of deep-lying midfielder has taken its toll.
Issac Lihadji was supposed to be the man to fill Amad’s shoes but he has already left the club, while Joe Anderson is on loan at Shrewsbury after failing to start a game for us, despite our injury crisis at the back, Joe Gelhardt came and went without making much of an impression and is now back at Leeds United.
Of the summer recruits, Nectar Triantis and Jenson Seelt boast a handful of games between them, with the Dutchman featuring largely at right back. This is worrying in itself because although Luke O’Nien splits opinion amongst the fanbase, I think even his most ardent enthusiasts would struggle to be able to make a case for him starting at centre half for any of the promotion candidates.
This suggests one of two things, either Mowbray has no trust in the two newcomers and this is due to his stubbornness, or they are simply not first team ready.
I’m inclined to go with the latter, given our track record of not signing players ready to play in the first team, we saw this last season with the likes of Abdoullah Ba and Edouard Michut.
Bradley Dack has been limited to cameos, but on this issue I am prepared to place the blame firmly at Mowbray’s door because quite honestly, I fail to see how he justifies getting so many minutes from the bench recently.
Adil Aouchiche has looked great coming off the bench, but has struggled in recent games when playing from the start, although I do think he has a lot of technical ability and will grow into a key player for us.
Luis Hemir, Nasariy Rusyn, Mason Burstow and Eliezer Mayenda have all failed to find the net so far this season. Again, this is probably a mix of not finding a tactic to play to their strengths coupled with their inexperience and having nobody to shoulder the weight of responsibility.
It is okay for a midfielder or a winger to make good cameos and grow into a starting role, but for a striker the pressure is on from day one to hit the ground running. When you have four young lads all trying to achieve the same outcome it’s not ideal for our goalscoring prospects.
Nahan Bishop has played just once in the cup, which is to be expected from a backup goalkeeper, and Timothée Pembélé is simply nowhere to be seen.
Jobe Bellingham is the only signing that went straight into the team and has stayed there consistently, when in truth he could have done with a rest but this has been impossible due to a lack of depth in midfield.
All of the above backs up Mowbray’s point that we can’t hope to achieve promotion with the inexperience through the squad.
Having said that, I can see some degree of logic behind his sacking; last season it’s easy to get swept up in calling last season a miracle from Mowbray’s point of view, but in reality it was just doing what it said on the tin.
Last season he achieved a points haul of 69 points, 12 months previously he had achieved a points haul of 69 points with Blackburn and finished 8th, six points off a play-off place. For context, that points total would have been enough to secure a play-off place just once since 2010.
There is no doubt that he has still done a fine job, but with no promotions on his CV since 2008, it’s quite conclusive from Mowbray’s body of work that promotion is unlikely.
However, by finishing sixth he has quite rightly raised the bar. Sunderland should not be a club happy to consolidate in The Championship, we may have been in League One for four years, but we shouldn’t use the lowest point in the club’s history as a yardstick to measure our level of success by.
By sacking Mowbray, the board have made a clear statement, ‘three points outside the play-offs isn’t good enough.’
This is great, but it puts an enormous amount of pressure on the next appointment, after sacking someone so popular, success simply must follow.
His dismissal could also be seen as a risk due to the bond he has developed with the players, suddenly keeping Jack Clarke seems a little less likely and our chances of bringing Amad Diallo back have dramatically decreased.
I am truly sorry that things didn’t turn out quite how we’d hoped with Mowbray because I’ve not wanted a manager to take us up as much for a long time.
Thanks for the memories Tony, and I hope that wherever he is right now he’s enjoying a packet of Revels and doing the Tony Mowbray, whatever that may be.