Sunderland’s February In Review – The Wheels Come Off, and Beale’s Off

Matt Wilson takes a look at the seventh month of Sunderland’s season

Read our August review here

Read our September review here

Read our October review here

Read our November review here

Read our December review here

Read our January review here


Overall Position: 10th
Played: 5
Won: 1
Drawn: 1
Lost: 3
Points: 4
Head Coach Sackings: 1
Points off the Play-Offs: 8

It’s a good job I’m keeping track of things in these monthly reviews, because if I wasn’t I wouldn’t be able to recall even half of what’s been going on, such are the rises and, admittedly more frequent, falls of this cuckoo-crazy football club.

Sunderland headed into February off the back of a poor January where Michael Beale seemed more intent on provoking the home supporters with a string of bizarre comments than setting the team up with any discernible system or style of play. Still, the previous game against Stoke City had garnered a win and Jack Clarke had not been sold, so we were clutching at some positives heading into the not-really-a-derby with Middlesbrough at the Riverside.

In a game BBC Sport described as “error strewn” Abdoullah Ba was the first to reinforce this by squandering two good chances in the first half, the second in particular filed under the gilt-edged category. It was Boro who struck first though when they were awarded a free kick that, in fact, should’ve gone the other way as Sam Greenwood helped himself to a fistful of his old mate Dan Neil’s shirt. The ball eventually found its way to Marcus Forss who spun and flashed a volley past Anthony Patterson. Sunderland though, were able to find a way back into the game.

Clarke, that man again, played a lovely one-two with Neil deep in his own half and carried the ball around 50 yards forward before checking back and picking out Nazariy Rusyn with a lovely defence-splitting pass. Rusyn, though in space, had plenty to do and his first touch made the ball bobble up, but he was able to rifle home a venomous shot from the edge of the area which beat nominative determinism’s Tom Glover in the Middlesbrough goal. A decent point, but it felt like a missed opportunity against a less than convincing Boro side.

Next up, a home game against Plymouth. Patrick Roberts was back in the starting line-up, Rusyn was rewarded with a start and Michael Beale channelled his inner Stephen Goldsmith by looking at the number 10 position and thinking “I could put a Ba in there”. A rasping drive from Clarke in the first half wasn’t enough to give Sunderland the lead and instead it was Plymouth who went ahead, catching our defence unawares with a long through-ball for Ryan Hardie who teased Patterson out of his goal and nonchalantly clipped the ball into the net.

Sunderland came out for the second half looking much better and it wasn’t long until Pierre Ekwah battered a free kick under the wall and into the corner for the equaliser. With Neil superbly pulling the strings in midfield, Sunderland took control of the game and Clarke insisted on getting in on the act, toying with SAFC academy product Bali Mumba on the edge of the area, like a cat torturing a mouse, before hammering a shot in off the post to take the lead. On the hour mark Ba gave way for Jobe who had finally been given the rest his performances suggested he needed, and he wasted no time in making an immediate impression… picking the ball up just inside the opposition half he drove at the Plymouth defence, beat a couple of men, and smashed the ball into the top corner. In a game of high-quality goals, this was the pick of the bunch and gave Beale’s men a resounding victory. Maybe, just maybe, things were beginning to turn.

What followed was a game against eminently-winnable opposition in the form of relegation strugglers Huddersfield Town. The perfect opportunity to build some momentum you might say. The Terriers had shown a recent upturn in form though under interim manager Jon Worthington, suggesting the game might not be as straightforward as first hoped. Huddersfield started the game the better side with some fierce pressing and had a couple of chances before winning a free kick on the edge of the Sunderland box. Played short to Jack Rudoni, he turned and hit an effort straight at Anthony Patterson who could only palm it back into danger and Matty Pearson was quickest to react with Sunderland defenders stood around gawping. I’m not sure we need to cover much more; this was as bad a performance as we’d seen all season.

Cue Michael Beale to revert to saying bizarre things in the media including the uplifting and inspirational “on our best day, I think we can be slightly better than the opposition but we’re not going to blow anyone away.”

With such Churchillian sentiments still ringing in their ears, the Sunderland players were preparing to face former boss Tony Mowbray and his new club Birmingham City at St Andrew’s. Sunderland actually started the game the better side taking the lead through, who else, Jack Clarke as he capitalised on some slack Brum defending before slotting into the bottom-right corner. Into the second half and Birmingham grabbed the equaliser; Jordan James tapping home after several previous efforts had been blocked by a combination of Patterson and all manner of Sunderland limbs.

And with barely 10 minutes remaining, Koji Miyoshi, who also impressed in the return fixture at the Stadium of Light, got ahead of Leo Hjelde to bundle home the winner after the Sunderland defence were slow to react to a quickly taken free kick.

The aftermath of the game, however, was dominated by a misunderstanding (if you can call it that) between Beale and Trai Hume, with the coach seeming to ignore the outstretched hand of our tackle-loving full back as he was subbed off near the end of the game. Some apologists claimed he hadn’t seen him, including one Twitter user who had grainy footage from high up in the stand, supposedly absolving Beale of blame.

The following evening rumours started swirling that Beale was set to be sacked, then the rumours went away, then Monday morning they came back again. Indeed, local media started reporting that it was likely to happen and later that day he’d gone… after 64 days and just 12 games in charge.

The following day it was reported that Player_ID, the handle for the aforementioned twitter account supporting Beale’s tenure at the club, had been used by Beale himself on other social media platforms fuelling debate as to whether he himself was behind it. Mike Dodds came back in and was announced as head coach until the end of the season, suggesting the club had more or less given up. Still, Swansea City were up next, and Dodds decided to gift Callum Styles a start as left-wing back as part of a new look 5 at the back.

This formation had worked brilliantly during Dodds’ last spell in charge against Leeds United but seemed an odd approach against a side just one point above the relegation zone. What followed was a disastrous and chaotic first-half performance as Swansea sliced through the Sunderland defence several times with the home side feeling lucky to only be 2-0 down at half-time. Sunderland improved in the second half with Dodds reverting to a back 4 and Luke O’Nien pulled one back with a diving header but it wasn’t enough and, frankly, Sunderland deserved nothing out of the game.

Even by our standards it had been a bizarre and topsy-turvy month. The Beale experiment never looked like working and it was a relief that the club had seen sense on this issue.

Dodds, despite the Swansea performance, had done admirably when in charge earlier in the season so there was some small call for optimism but with Sunderland in 10th and eight points off the play-offs it looked like the month where Sunderland’s faint hopes of a promotion push had died.