When Tony Mowbray first arrived at Sunderland, one of the first things he said really stood out in my mind.
A veteran of North-East football, the former Middlesbrough boss was asked what sort of reception he was expecting to receive from the Sunderland fans.
He said that our supporters were “great” and indicated that we’d get along just fine, so long as we understood that the team would win some games and lose some games. But he insisted that we could be reassured that the players would give everything to the cause.
Now the commitment of the players during Mowbray’s two months at Sunderland cannot be faulted – and this is one of the most dedicated groups of footballers, both individually and as a team, that I’ve seen in my twenty odd years following the club.
That was never in question, but what struck me was the comment about winning and losing.
It’s a fact of life that even the best teams in the land lose games, but it’s not what I want to hear from our head coach.
I’ve no doubt that during his two decades in the dugout, Mowbray has tried to win every game he has presided over – unless he’s perhaps setting up for a draw against superior opposition, but even parking the bus is against his nature as progressive, attack-minded coach.
Why, therefore, did he need to warn the fan base that we’d win some and lose some? Was it a lack of self-belief or confidence in the team, or was it because he and/or the club wanted to put more emphasis on the development of young players than cold, hard results?
The club’s decision not to bring in a striker when both Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms were sidelined, was a sign that come rain or shine, the hierarchy were keen to put their faith in the recently signed youthful quartet of Eduard Michut, Abdoullah Ba, Amad Diallo and Jewison Bennette.
I’ve enjoyed watching the aforementioned foursome make their mark on our first team. It’s great to see faith being put in younger players with vast potential. I also understand that this is a key part of the club’s model in terms of squad structure and recruitment. Our young guns have been a breath of fresh air over the past 12 months.
But I believe we should be doing both – focusing on youth development and at the same time – bringing in the occasional experienced head when the need arises (such as the recent striker shortage). There were free agents out there.
It’s clear that those four young lads, along with the others who were already established in our first team squad, are making progress by the week under the guidance of Mowbray, a man with a track record of working with youngsters and moulding sides which like to play a possession-based game. However, I believe that as a Championship outfit we’re a weaker Sunderland than we were under Mowbray’s predecessor, Alex Neil.
And I’m not blaming the focus on youth here. Our style has changed almost beyond recognition. Under Neil, we were a high-pressing, in their faces, hard tackling side which set about the first few games of this campaign as if they were cup finals.
Neil himself claimed that each performance was taking such a lot out of his players, but the Scotsman’s hopes of strengthening the side with experienced campaigners probably influenced his controversial decision to move on.
Our current squad – with its youthful energy, more than a sprinkle of experience and an abundance of team spirit – is still more than capable of the high-tempo performances which we saw earlier in the season, including the 3-0 win over Rotherham in Mowbray’s first home game.
In my view, the problem is the style of play. Despite being a newly-promoted side, we’re no longer setting up to get in the faces of our Championship opponents. Neil’s pragmatic approach with room for a bit of good football, has been replaced with total football, a possession-based style which makes us vulnerable to giving the ball away in key areas and the type of mistake which led to Cardiff’s penalty on Saturday.
Yes we beat Huddersfield last midweek, but results of late have been patchy at best. There’s a long way to go but we need to put a run together soon. The last thing we want is to get sucked into a relegation battle.
In conclusion, we’ve had a great calendar year. We’re even just a couple of wins away from the play-off positions, and I’m all for playing and integrating the young lads into the team. I just want us to get back to basics and get at teams with a high-pressing, tough tackling approach – with the crowd cheering every crunching challenge and creating an intimidating atmosphere for the opposition.
Once we get back to that, the good football will look after itself, especially with natural talents like Jack Clarke, Patrick Roberts, Alex Pritchard, as well as the aforementioned Diallo, Bennette and Ba. As for Michut, his time will come soon too.