Yes, he likes biscuits, and yes, he’s far more affable and willing to engage with the media than his predecessor, but if we can look beyond the jovial side of Tony Mowbray and focus on his credentials as a football coach - which is, after all, the crux of the discussion - I think the past week has thrown up some interesting arguments.
As we enter the busy Christmas period, the Sunderland boss is in a rather unique position,
The team is well-placed in the Championship table, he’s close to being able to call on a fully-fit squad, and with a fixture against Hull on Saturday, there’s every chance that Monday’s defeat against West Brom could be atoned for if we can get back to basics and ensure that a proper ninety-minute performance is turned in against the Tigers.
However, despite the generally positive impact that Mowbray’s had since arriving on Wearside, the old tropes about ‘footballing dinosaurs’ and ‘an uninspired choice’ never seem to be far from the discussion. We’ve been here plenty of times before with previous Sunderland managers, but it’s nonetheless frustrating to see.
Yes, Monday’s result was poor, and he undoubtedly botched the timing of his substitutions, leaving us ripe for the picking by the Baggies, but these things happen. Monday was every bit as disappointing as the Millwall game was excellent. It’s just the nature of the beast.
Twenty years ago, in the pre-social media age of football, he wouldn’t have been castigated or vilified in the aftermath. Instead, we would’ve simply written it off as a bad day at the office, been grumpy for a day or so, and then moved on to the next game.
I’ve long felt that Mowbray wouldn’t be being judged so harshly had he not succeeded Alex Neil in the Stadium of Light hotseat, but it’s worth remembering that when he took the job, we’d been left in the lurch when our promotion-winning head coach upped sticks and headed for Stoke.
He was massively in credit with the supporters at the time, and justifiably so. In that sense, perhaps it’s a case of Mowbray being the man who followed ‘The Man’ that’s led to a mixed reception since he arrived back in August.
On the other hand, it’s not as if Neil had been harshly dismissed and the club had opted for a vengeful replacement in order to spite the supporters.
He arrived with admirable credentials from his time at Blackburn, and whereas friction clearly existed between Neil and the club’s hierarchy, no such issues have arisen during Mowbray’s tenure.
He understands the system, is clearly willing to work within it, and his two main briefs- to bring stability and ensure the team can be competitive in the league, and to nurture and guide our young group of players- are being fulfilled.
At times, the quality of football has been excellent and at times it’s been poor. Sometimes we’ve looked capable of beating anyone, and on other occasions we’ve frozen at key moments in games.
These are perfectly normal occurrences for a newly-promoted side, and I think that’s why Mowbray rarely sounds overly perturbed during his interviews. He’s massively experienced and the job clearly holds no fear for him.
What worries me is that we run the risk of getting sucked back into another forlorn game of ‘Pick Your Fantasy Sunderland Boss’, which has led to lovelorn pursuits of the likes of Roy Keane as recently as January. Neil might’ve been a great fit for us, but if Mowbray leads us to a mid-table finish or even better, he’s done exactly what’s expected of him.
Fundamentally, Mowbray’s doing just fine as Sunderland boss, albeit with the spectre of poor home form preventing us from making a bigger impact in the upper reaches of the league. He’ll understand the need to turn that around, but there’s absolutely no indication of the players downing tools or the boss running out of ideas.
Our season so far has been a story of mixed fortunes, but there’s nothing wrong with the team that can’t be rectified with some hard work on the training ground and some smarter play during games, not to mention some solid additions in the transfer window.
Mowbray deserves backing and patience, and if Kyril Louis-Dreyfus’ recent comments are anything to go by, there is some welcome calmness in the boardroom about the direction of travel under his stewardship.