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The days of the iron-fisted manager are over, and it’s no different at Sunderland

The game is evolving and Sunderland have finally got on board, albeit far later than they should’ve done.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images


In the aftermath of Tony Mowbray’s Sunderland exit, there was a good deal of speculation (as well as some none-too-subtle pushing of agendas whipped up with glee by the local media) about the supposed breakdown in trust and/or communication between the head coach and his superiors.

In some ways, it was a carbon copy of the murkiness that eventually culminated in Alex Neil’s departure for Stoke City in 2022, as the promotion-winning head coach exited under the guise of supposedly ‘not being backed in the transfer market’.

I believed then, and still do, that it was a deliberately ambiguous phrase that in reality was neither here nor there. It enabled Neil to save face whilst indirectly painting the likes of Kristjaan Speakman as the bad guy, and history has repeated itself during the past week.

In any case, regardless of what disgruntled fans on BBC phone-ins might say, or what local journalists who seemed to view Mowbray as their friend might think, the structure at Sunderland (I dislike the word ‘model’ and have done for some time - it’s becoming too much of a cliche for my liking) isn’t going to change for as long as the current hierarchy are in place.

A structure centred around a ‘sporting director’ might be an alien and uncomfortable concept to us, particularly after the nightmare of the Roberto De Fanti experiment, but in the wider world of football, it’s commonplace and in some regards, it’s no longer considered particularly revolutionary.

Txiki Begiristain occupies such a position at Manchester City, Dan Ashworth recently swapped Brighton for Newcastle, and even in the Championship, former Blackburn winger Jason Wilcox is now overseeing Southampton’s progress as their director of football.

Southampton FC v Ipswich Town - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Robin Jones/Getty Images

Regardless of what the traditionalists might believe, the days of the Alex Ferguson-style manager who ran the club with an iron fist and would transfer list players who stepped out of line and to whom almost everyone was answerable, are gone.

The very nature of the game has changed, expectations and targets are different, and clubs such as ourselves faced a stark choice: either move with the times or risk being cut adrift.

It’s been three years since Sunderland jumped on board this particular train and although there have been bumps in the road and mistakes made by Speakman, the two key objectives - promotion from League One and establishing ourselves as a competitive Championship outfit - have been achieved and there’s no indication they’ll be resting on their laurels, either.

Had we implemented such a structure a decade ago, with a clear plan and a recruitment strategy that was utterly focused on a particular profile of player, we might’ve avoided the turbulence that we had to endure between 2017 and 2022, but at least we’ve embraced it now and the results have largely spoken for themselves.

Whoever Sunderland’s next head coach is will be given a very clear brief and just as Mowbray was before things seemingly turned sour, will need to be fully aligned with it. If it’s a younger coach with a keen eye for data and tactical flexibility, the transition will hopefully be easy and the season’s target will remain achievable.

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As we saw with Saturday’s victory over West Brom, he’ll be working with a talented squad who simply need to be guided in a new direction, and all of the raw materials are in place with hopefully more additions to come in January.

One thing is for certain: when the announcement is made, the sceptics will be in full voice and doubtless using phrases such as ‘puppet’ and ‘yes man’ about the new man in charge. However, this is merely another byproduct of tough times and dips in form, and you didn’t hear that kind of thing with any real conviction when we beat Southampton 5-0 or during last season’s unlikely playoff run.

To those fans, including myself, who grew up with Peter Reid calling the shots, the new way at Sunderland can often feel somewhat strange, but it’s certainly the way a club in our current position should be operating, especially considering the way football has changed since 2017.

Leicester City v Sunderland Photo by Barrington Coombs/EMPICS via Getty Images

People often use the argument that ‘Roy Keane wouldn’t have worked within such a structure’ but it’s important to remember that Keane hasn’t managed at club level for a decade and was also responsible for signing off on the arrivals of Ian Harte and Andrew Cole, so his record in the market wasn’t exactly sparkling, either.

Whether we like it or not, the dynamics of football are vastly different now.

The pecking order has been shuffled and for clubs such as ourselves, the need to keep up has been been pressing.

It doesn’t mean that we ‘lack ambition’ or that we’re downplaying our status as an esteemed football club; it simply means that we’re doing things differently and if Mowbray’s successor can embody that, he’s got a hell of an opportunity to achieve something notable.

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