Sunderland’s January in Review: A Derby Day Debacle, discontent and strikers at the double

Matt Wilson takes a look at Sunderland’s first month of 2024 and the sixth 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


Overall Position: 7th
Played: 4
Won: 2
Drawn: 0
Lost: 2
Points: 6
Head Coach Sackings: 0
Goals from Strikers: 2!!!!!!

If December was the month where it finally blew up, January was the month embodied by the ‘This Is Fine’ meme as the club insisted all was well, despite several infernos burning all around us… on and off the pitch, little fires everywhere.

Sunderland headed into the month really needing to put their poor form behind them, with Michael Beale still unable to endear himself to the Wearside faithful having produced neither positive results nor performances.

Preston, at home, on New Years’ Day provided an excellent opportunity to turn things around. The visitors looked lively in the opening stages however, Anthony Patterson making a flying save to deny Ben Whiteman. Alex Pritchard, back in the starting line-up alongside Aji Alese and Nazariy Rusyn, once again showed his quality shortly after with a rasping drive from distance that swerved past ex-Mag Freddie Woodman and Sunderland were ahead.

Time for another before half time as the imperious Jack Clarke rode a couple of challenges down the left-hand side before squaring for Rusyn who showed excellent instincts to dart across his man and side foot home. Ring the bell, sound the alarm A STRIKER HAS SCORED!!!!!!

While this review is primarily league-focused, it would be remiss not to mention the FA Cup 3rd round tie against Newcastle, AKA The Derby Day Debacle. A fixture that will have longer lasting ramifications than possibly any other this season.

The build-up was nothing short of disgraceful, and the performance and result little better. The slight upturn in mood following the Preston game had been well and truly extinguished and the club had only themselves to blame.

A chance to partially redeem themselves came the following week with a trip to Portman Road. Ipswich had been riding high in second place for much of the season and, although they were on a five-game winless run heading into this fixture, a positive result would have sent out quite the message.

Once again, Jack Clarke pulled something out of nothing with a great strike from the edge of the area after an assist from Abdoullah Ba, but the euphoria was short-lived when Kayden Jackson curled an equaliser beyond Patterson.

Into the second half and substitute Adil Aouchiche fluffed a glorious chance to put Sunderland ahead, then moments later made a stupid challenge on Ipswich wing-back Leif Davis. Davis dusted himself down and swung the ball into the box for Conor Chaplin to power a header past Patterson, gifting Ipswich the win.

Michael Beale described Chaplin as the “smallest man on the pitch” in his post-match interview, somehow forgetting about the surely-slightly-smaller Pritchard who, when substituted, remonstrated theatrically with his manager. Some interpreted this as general disdain for the new boss, whilst others suggested he was gesturing about Aouchiche’s challenge that led to the winning goal.

Either way, all was not rosy… and back to Beale’s post-match comments where he essentially threw the young Frenchmen “sous le bus”. Certainly, Aouchiche’s contribution was farcical at best but to publicly shame a young player did little to improve Beale/supporter relations.

Next up, a home game against Hull City, a side Sunderland had beaten just weeks earlier. Hull entered the game in similar form to previous opponents Ipswich, with four defeats in five, and inevitably the game reached a similar conclusion.

Sunderland were slow, disjointed and lacking in energy with Clarke and Pritchard once again the only ones looking likely to create anything. The most interesting first half activity revolved around Hull having five players booked. Yes, it was bad.

In the second half it was on-loan Liverpool forward Fabio Carvalho who made the difference with a deflected volley. That goal, coupled with Beale’s decision to replace Rusyn with Hemir when in search of a goal, was greeted with chants of “sacked in the morning” from sections of the home crowd. Beale, somehow, managed to spin this as the fans having a go at the players in another provocative post-match interview.

In the build-up to the following fixture, a home game against Stoke, Beale sarcastically suggested the club were in a “crisis” by being three points off the play-offs and that he couldn’t change his accent or where he was from… a problem voiced by seemingly no one, so a bizarre rebuttal once more.

Whomever was advising Beale from a PR-perspective, if anyone, was giving some perplexing Methven-esque suggestions. To put the cherry on top of these preparations, on the morning of the game the club announced that Alex Pritchard was “no longer available for selection” and wished to leave the club with “immediate effect”.

His remonstrations at the end of the Ipswich game were perhaps starting to make more sense, and perhaps we’ll never learn the truth of what went on, but what was certain was that Sunderland would be missing a key creative input.

On to the game itself and a combination of Patterson and Luke O’Nien prevented Stoke from taking the lead, something that could’ve led to a toxic atmosphere. Luckily Clarke, menacing as ever, forced a save out of Daniel Iverson, Ba put it back into the danger area and Mason Burstow, restored to the starting line-up, nodded in from about three yards. Sound the alarm again – A STRIKER HAS SCORED!!!!!!

Into the second half and another goal engineered by the sublime Clarke as he slipped in Ba in acres of space who simply had to side-foot home. The goal completed a redemption arc for Ba who had come through a poor spell of form to make a much needed, crucial contribution. How about another?

This time a speculative ball from Seelt found its way to Ba via Pierre Ekwah’s head, Ba returned the favour and Ekwah, another who’d been out-of-sorts lately, hammered a low shot into the corner to make it three. Stoke pulled one back when Seelt bundled the ball into his own net from a deep cross, but it wasn’t enough to dampen the upturn in mood.

Days later it was Transfer Deadline Day, with most supporters expecting the club to sign a forward to bolster the four sort-of strikers already on the books. The romantics amongst us longed for the return of Amad Diallo, the pragmatists plumped for Kieffer Moore… and the club settled on signing no one.

In fact, Elizer Mayenda was allowed to leave for Hibs on loan so we had one striker fewer than we’d started the window with. Leo Hjelde, Romaine Mundle and Callum Styles were the others to come in, strengthening positions we arguably didn’t need to strengthen while a holding midfielder and that elusive striker continued to evade us.

With Pritchard linking up with former boss, and all-round lovely man, Tony Mowbray at Birmingham, it was hard not to look at the window and think the squad had been weakened.

Still, keeping Jack Clarke was key and the club had managed to do that, the strikers had finally started sticking the old pig’s bladder in the onion bag, Patrick Roberts was returning to fitness and perhaps the new signings would give us the boost needed to surge back into those play-off places as we headed into February.