Ah, the stress-free life of a Sunderland head coach.
Heroes and villains. Losses picked apart and victories sometimes greeted with unease for fear of the next twist in the tale. It’s not an easy job and Tony Mowbray, a veteran and a man with arguably little to prove, is once again experiencing the less enjoyable side of it.
The good news is that the 2023/2024 campaign is still young, and there’s plenty of time for us to emerge from this slump and ensure that we continue to keep ourselves in and around the top six.
On the other hand, recent results have taken the wind out of our sails and perhaps one or two doubts have crept in as a result. It’s not unexpected, but the reaction in certain quarters has been somewhat over the top.
The last three games have been disappointing in different ways.
Middlesbrough was brutal in the wake of Dan Neil’s red card, Stoke City was simply unacceptable, and although we restored some pride by running Leicester City close on Tuesday night, there’s no doubt that we’re in a rut and that Mowbray isn’t as deeply in credit as he was a few short weeks ago.
The idea that he should be under any undue pressure at this stage of the season, with the club a mere three points behind third position, seems harsh, but such is the fickle nature of this game and the Wearside pressure cooker that the line between hero status and ‘man under scrutiny’ is often perilously thin.
After the stroll in the sunshine against Southampton in late August, everyone was happy and Mowbray was on the crest of a wave, but after a run of three defeats and a single goal scored, the questions are mounting and the mood isn’t exactly rampantly upbeat.
I should take a pause at this stage to state that I like Mowbray a great deal. He’s helped to foster a hugely impressive team spirit among his young squad, he’s overseen a great deal of individual development, and at our best, we’ve played some exceptional football in a fearless style.
On the other hand, some of his recent calls, such as the persistence with an out-of-sorts Mason Burstow, a two-minute cameo for Hemir against Leicester, and the decision to opt for no striker and a substitute appearance for a clearly unfit Bradley Dack against an in-your-face Stoke side have hardly been well received.
In addition, defensive deficiencies remain, an over-reliance on Jack Clarke to score goals is glaring, and names such as Ross Stewart and Danny Batth seem to be creeping back into the discussion as we keep getting drawn back to our summer transfer business and whether it was right or wrong to let those two players leave.
The latter might be a moot point, as the club clearly weren’t budging when it came to Stewart’s contractual situation, and they’d obviously decreed that Batth simply wasn’t going to get the amount of game time that he perhaps felt he needed, and his lack of minutes at Norwich hardly undermines that argument.
The bigger problem, and one that’s been highlighted again in recent weeks, is that too often under Mowbray, we’re a team of extremes.
The victories tend to be thrilling and the losses are often gut-wrenching.
We rarely seem to win in low key fashion, and we’re seldom edged out of games by fine margins, either. Such an ‘either/or’ style might be entertaining, but it’s not really the foundation on which champion teams are built.
At the moment, it feels as though Mowbray is in a similar position as he was when we suffered consecutive defeats against Rotherham and Coventry last season: on the back foot, slightly short of ideas and simply trying to ride out this brutal run of results.
He needs something to change, for it to change swiftly, and now is certainly not the time for chocolate puns and the like.
Any kind of a win against Norwich would be significant, but should it arrive on the back of the kind of gutsy, positive performance we saw at the King Power Stadium, the knives will no longer be out and the waters will undoubtedly be calmer.
Suffice it to say, Mowbray’s cause is hardly being helped by eyes being cast across the English Channel to France, where Francesco Farioli, the up-and-coming Italian who was linked with us during the summer, is doing a fine job as head coach of Nice.
Are we viewing Farioli as an example of ‘let’s have a look at what you could’ve won’, if only Kristjaan Speakman had been ruthless enough to pull the trigger? Dispensing with Mowbray’s services would’ve been harsh, but it would’ve been interesting, too.
Had we made the change during the summer, there’s no guarantee that Farioli would’ve been a perfect fit, as talented and highly-rated a coach as he clearly is. Would the players have instantly responded to him? Would he have placed the same amount of trust in them as Mowbray? All hypotheticals, of course, but worth considering nevertheless.
There’s no doubt that the process of hiring head coaches is a lot more structured nowadays, but success elsewhere doesn’t always carry over and conversely, what might feel like an underwhelming appointment can often turn out to be a shrewd move, as our 2022/2023 season shows.
Roberto de Zerbi’s exceptional work at Brighton is clearly setting a template that other clubs will be keen to follow, but at this stage, with a young squad in need of guidance and a head coach with faith in their ability, I think that Mowbray’s position should remain secure.
In some ways, last season’s unlikely sixth place finish is something of a millstone around the club’s neck.
After guiding us into the playoffs against the odds and with expectations for 2023/2024 rising as a result, Mowbray is trying to bring about further progress with a remodelled team and players at various stages of development.
That’s not necessarily problematic, as long as you accept that there’ll be bumps in the road, and just as he guided his charges through dips in form last season, he’ll doubtless be eager to do the same now. Saturday is a big game, but these players have the ability to respond and to get back to winning ways, and they owe that to Mowbray at the very least.