Sunderland’s December in review: Two head coaches, a caretaker and the return of a forgotten man

Matt Wilson takes a look at Sunderland’s final month of 2023

Read our August review here

Read our September review here

Read our October review here

Read our November review here


Overall Position: 7th
Played: 7
Won: 3
Drawn: 2
Lost: 2
Points: 11
Head Coach Sackings: 1
Number of Head Coaches Overseeing First Team: 3
Goals from Strikers: 0

I’d been waiting for a month like December, a month where the whole thing blows up. The touch paper was certainly lit at the end of November, with 2 losses in 5 days piling the pressure on Tony Mowbray, and indeed it was in December when the scythe’s remorseless swing eventually swung for lovely Tone.

What followed was a caretaker stint for Michael ‘Doddsy’ Dodds and a whole host of exciting young coaches being linked to the club, only for us to eventually, and inevitably, settle for an out-of-work and out-of-favour Just a Man™.

Before that though, Tony had one last dance and in what better arena to do that final pirouette than the home of Millwall… The Den.

Sunderland’s poor form continued though as we went 1-0 down just before half-time as Dan Ballard got caught out of position and Millwall capitalised. Ballard then missed a glorious chance to get us back in it before the imperious Jack Clarke did just that by winning and converting a penalty.

Millwall thought they’d stolen the 3 points at the death, but the goal was disallowed, and the game ended in a draw.

Little progress on Sunderland’s part really and Mowbray’s post-match comments were consistent with the last few weeks where he’d come across as a man’s whose time was running out. Indeed 2 days later he was relieved of his duties with Sunderland sitting in 9th place, with 1 win from their last 5 games, but only 3 points off the play-offs.

Such is the relentlessness of the December schedule there was barely time to ponder what might come next when Sunderland hosted West Brom at the Stadium of Light under the tutelage of interim head coach Dodds.

His previous stint in charge of the first team had been less than successful so fans would be forgiven for feeling concerned at might what come at the hands of a side pushing the upper echelons of the table.

Jobe got another turn in Sunderland Striker Roulette, and he had a goal incorrectly ruled out for offside in what was a tightly contested first half. In fact, it was Alex Pritchard, once again on as a substitute, who made the crucial creative difference. First sweeping in a free kick that Ballard glanced home, and then executing an audacious through-ball with the outside of his foot for Dan Neil to run on to and confidently clip the ball over Palmer in the West Brom goal.

It was a move of supreme quality, the finish more than living up to Pritchard’s class in the build-up. The Baggies pulled a goal back with minutes to spare but Sunderland held on for the win and were back into the play-off places.

A quick intake of breath and the next game was on the horizon; a second home fixture in 4 days and this time 3rd place Leeds United the visitors. Leeds were an intimidating prospect with 3 wins in a row leading into this game and Dodds threw a curveball from the outset by setting Sunderland up with an unfamiliar 5 at the back as Pritchard, Abdoullah Ba and Jenson Seelt were all handed starting spots.

The game plan worked a treat as Leeds dangermen Daniel James and Crysencio Summerville were totally nullified. Meslier made a staggering save from a Seelt header and there were chances at both ends before Jobe, once again the choice up front, put his head in bravely to nod Sunderland ahead with 15 minutes still to play. Hume made a gargantuan goal line clearance late on to secure the win and it was a second win in a week for Mike Dodds. It had been a tactical masterclass, executed to a tee, and the groundswell of fan opinion calling for Dodds to get the head coach position on a longer term basis had reached its peak.

Naturally the club ignored this, and in amongst the other tasty options being touted such as Reims man-child Will Still, a man who sounds like he’s named after a Fresh Prince of Bell Air reboot, rumours swirled that in fact, ex-Rangers manager Michael Beale was about to take the job. Safe to say the fan reaction was mixed, at best, with Rangers and QPR fans (Beale’s other former club) seeming to largely despise the man.

With Beale not yet confirmed, Dodds continued as interim head coach for the away game against Bristol City and the less said about it the better. Sunderland continued their trend of struggling against sides lower down the league table as they succumbed to a penalty after 20 minutes, Patterson bringing down the triple surnamed Taylor Gardner-Hickman and the spot kick was duly dispatched by Tommy Conway. Sunderland though, couldn’t break down a resolute City defence, despite having a whopping 67% possession by the end of the game.

Speaking of “ends”, this game marked the end of the Doddsy era as the still-deeply-unpopular choice of Michael Beale was confirmed a few days later and was in the dugout at the SOL for the visit of Coventry City.

As above, the less said about this one the better as Beale’s reign got off to the worst possible start. Jobe’s older, and let’s face it, not-as-good, brother Jude was in the crowd but saw little to be impressed by in the first half and it was Coventry who went ahead on the stroke of halftime. Sunderland started the second half better, with opportunities for Jobe, Clarke and Hume, but were hit on the counter when the menacing Callum O’Hare curled a finish beyond Patterson to make it 2-0, before Casey Palmer made it 3 with around 20 minutes left.

The result lifted Coventry to 15th in the table, a position somewhat deceptive given they’re now 7th at the time of writing. Beale took the unprecedented step of apologising to the Sunderland fans after only one game in charge.

Again, such is the December schedule, there was no time to dwell, as Sunderland travelled to Hull and back just 3 days later with Jude Bellingham still in tow. Also still in tow was Michael Beale, surely hoping for a more positive result this time. Hull, another play-off chasing side, had the first half’s only shot on target in a cagey encounter but it was Clarke, once again, who proved the difference with barely 10 minutes to spare, cutting in from the left and arrowing a low shot into the corner to the delight of the travelling fans.

The 7th and final game of the month was away at bottom-of-the-table Rotherham. Sunderland again struggled against lower placed opposition as Rotherham squandered several chances in the first half, Patterson keeping Sunderland in it, before Sam Clucas unleashed a ferocious volley from the edge of the box to give the hosts the lead.

Until once again I’m saying “once again” as, once again, Jack Clarke dragged Sunderland back into it with a deflected strike that looped over Viktor Johansson in the Rotherham goal.

Another mixed bag of performances and results then, and certainly more topsy-turvy off the pitch than previous months, as alongside the managerial changes an FA Cup third round fixture against Newcastle was looming and controversies around ticket allocations and relocating home fans were doing the rounds (and much, much worse to come).

On the pitch Alex Pritchard made some crucial contributions and, as he has throughout the season, Jack Clarke was responsible for much of what was good about Sunderland’s December, with 5 of our 11 points coming via his goals. Let’s just hope we’re not heading into the remainder of the season wondering how we’ll cope without him…