How quickly fortunes can change in football.
If you cast your mind back to the visit of Norwich City in late August, when Alex Neil’s future was in major doubt and 30,000+ fans descended on the Stadium of Light wondering what was going on after two days of uncertainty, Sunderland’s sporting director found himself under intense scrutiny.
As the rumours swirled and Neil surfaced at Ewood Park to take in Stoke City’s game against Blackburn, Kristjaan Speakman gave a pre-match interview on Sky Sports during which he explained, in reasonably oblique terms, what was happening from the club’s standpoint.
Suffice it to say, the immediate reaction was less than pleasant, with Speakman bearing the brunt of the criticism for potentially allowing ‘the best manager since Reid/Keane/Allardyce’ to depart for what felt like far simpler reasons than he outlined.
Thereafter followed plenty of debate about exactly what being ‘backed in the transfer market’ meant, and why we were apparently not prepared to give Neil the kind of contract that many felt he was worth. After all, he had delivered Championship promotion and many supporters believed he should’ve been rewarded accordingly.
For those who did not like Speakman to begin with and would’ve been happy to see him depart, this episode was grist to their mill.
What further proof did you need in order to show that the ex-Birmingham City man was ‘out of his depth’ at Sunderland? In the battle of the ambitious coach and the sporting director, it seemed as though the majority of support was for Neil, and perhaps justifiably so.
Since that day, however, Sunderland have lost one match from four under the stewardship of Tony Mowbray, have started to make a genuine impression on the Championship, and have begun to gain plaudits for our style of play and the potential being shown by many players.
Indeed, the swift installation of Mowbray as head coach suggested that a valuable lesson had been learned after the last change in the dugout, when two games were essentially wasted following Lee Johnson’s departure and our season was compromised because of it.
On a personal level, Speakman can divide opinion, and I often find myself growing increasingly frustrated when reading or listening to his interviews.
His style of communication and penchant for the kind of florid language that often grates on football fans might not be to everyone’s taste, but if you examine his body of work since he joined the club, his record does stand up to scrutiny.
If we are going to criticise Speakman for his missteps, it is only reasonable that we praise him if and when his vision starts to yield genuine promise.
I called for him to go after the January transfer window, but as our new way of operating continues to take shape the importance of his role is becoming ever clearer.
Admittedly, the decision to lower the average age and opt for a squad that is heavily tilted towards youth was not without its detractors, but given how well these lads have taken to the Championship, it certainly represents vindication, to some degree.
It is still early days but on the evidence of 2022/2023 so far, there is genuine cause for optimism.
The fact of the matter is that the majority of signings made since Speakman’s arrival at the club have already made a huge impression at Sunderland, or are showing exciting potential and the ability to become game changers for us.
The signings of Alex Pritchard and Ross Stewart were inspired, the addition of Daniel Ballard was looking like a superb piece of business before his injury, and securing the services of Jack Clarke on a permanent deal has paid dividends so far.
Admittedly, the lack of a third orthodox striker and a midfield powerhouse are still often thrown at Speakman but with Jay Matete, for example, starting to find some real form under Mowbray, perhaps some long-term faith might be rewarded.
Of the many players to arrive on Wearside on Speakman’s watch, only Fredrik Alves could be classed as an out-and-out failure, and whilst the likes of Thorben Hoffmann ultimately fell short of expectations they did play quite a substantial role, too.
To compare Sunderland’s football infrastructure now to the shape it was in from 2018 to 2020 is almost night and day.
Overhauling it so radically was never likely to be an easy task, and we haven’t fully cracked it yet, but there are certainly more reasons to be optimistic than when we were trying to get excited about the likes of Laurens de Bock and Joel Lynch.
Speakman himself would no doubt accept criticism as part of the job, but giving credit where it is due is essential.
He doesn’t need to be the most popular man on Wearside in order to become successful: he simply needs to oversee things as efficiently and smartly as he can, and if he continues to do just that, he may start to win the trust of more fans as the season unfolds.