It’s worth starting this article by highlighting the fact that Tony Mowbray and Sunderland AFC have previous. They’ve crossed swords before, and it wasn’t exactly a harmonious encounter, either.
As the 2006/2007 Championship season headed towards its conclusion, Roy Keane took the Black Cats to the Hawthorns to play Mowbray’s West Bromwich Albion in a game that was billed as a showdown between two genuine promotion candidates. At the time, we were riding a wave of momentum, but this was another big test, and one we needed to pass.
On the day, we secured a vital three points after a gritty and determined performance, and thanks to goals from Stern John and Dwight Yorke. In the aftermath of a defeat that dented Albion’s promotion hopes, their boss famously uncorked his frustration in his post-match interview.
“I want to be gracious in defeat but I know who was the better side on the day - the team with more control and trying to force the game.
“Sunderland are a very organised, defensively set up team and you’ve got to give them credit for that.
“But over the next 10 games I would suggest we will end up with more points than them because of the way we play. We will score more goals than them.”
It is extremely intriguing, therefore, that fifteen years later, Mowbray looks set to replace Alex Neil in the Stadium of Light hotseat, having left Blackburn Rovers (somewhat harshly, looking at it from afar) at the end of the 2021/2022 season.
Mowbray’s spell at Ewood Park saw Rovers drop into League One, before escaping at the first attempt and then securing fifteenth, fifteenth, eleventh, and eighth-place finishes in the Championship during the seasons that followed. In addition, he worked with head of recruitment Stuart Harvey, and also coached potential new signing Jean Paul van Hecke (Rovers’ player of the season in 2021/2022), as well as current Sunderland skipper Corry Evans.
As I see it, there are two distinct trains of thought on the former Middlesbrough skipper taking over the reigns on Wearside.
The first is that he is an experienced, savvy and well-travelled figure, who won’t be fazed by the challenge of coaching a club of our stature, and the second is that he is a bargain-basement, jobs-for-the-boys type of appointment, brought in cheaply by a regime fixated by ‘the model’ at the expense of everything else.
It all depends on which side of the fence you sit, but fundamentally, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. One thing that is absolutely clear is that the mistakes of January’s managerial search cannot be repeated. Time is of the essence and a replacement for Neil is needed swiftly.
Personally, I don’t see Mowbray as a Phil Parkinson-type footballing dinosaur. Gruff doesn’t necessarily mean dour, and the club has moved well past the dark days of ‘Parkyball’, not least because he would inherit a far better squad than Parkinson ever had at his disposal.
His recent record in this division is good, and he did oversee the impressive development of some exciting young talent at Ewood Park, including Chilean striker Ben Brereton-Diaz. That would seem to fit nicely with the club’s new ethos, and it ticks another important box.
For Kristjaan Speakman, a man already under pressure for his handling of the Neil situation and facing ongoing discontent about his ability as a sporting director, this is a crucial decision.
The top and bottom of this situation is that Sunderland simply must be playing Championship football at the bare minimum in 2023/2024. Consolidation in this division has to be the foundation on which we can build, and there is no reason why Mowbray cannot be the man to achieve it.
For those who claim that he wouldn’t be an ‘eye-catching’ appointment, it’s worth remembering that his predecessor wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms, either.
Neil arrived after a public and ultimately-doomed flirtation with Roy Keane, and was not universally acclaimed, but ultimately succeeded in his brief. Mowbray on the other hand would arrive after a very public walkout by the Scot, and with a clean slate as a result.
With that in mind, it feels like he would be given time and backing by a fanbase determined to move on from a bitter parting of the ways and eager to see the team continue to progress.
If Mowbray is the new man at the helm, let’s crack on, continue to tackle the challenge of the Championship, and make sure that we aren’t knocked off course.
The games are coming thick and fast, and with a trip to Middlesbrough looming, perhaps a little more spice could be added to the buildup before we make the trip down the A19, if a Boro legend is heading for the away dugout at the Riverside.