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Fan Letters: “Tony Mowbray’s Sunderland departure was right, even if was a divisive decision”

It’s a packed RR mailbag today, as readers have their say on Mowbray’s exit, the search for a replacement, the benefits of our current structure, and some controversial recent sports broadcasting. Got something to say? Email us:

Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Dear Roker Report,

So, the dust has settled and first of all, let’s be honest and say we wouldn’t have beaten West Brom with Tony Mowbray in charge.

We would’ve arrived at the sixty minute mark at 0-0 or 1-0 down, thrown on three random substitutes and two more five minutes later, confusing everyone and being kicked in the nuts with a late goal from a corner.

Mowbray is a likeable person and there’s no doubt he had us playing some great football.

He was a nice bloke and he seemed like a great fit for us, but the cracks were showing as far back as February and March with his refusal to change anything.

Any changes he made were enforced by injuries and we only made the playoffs on the final day due to a siege mentality among the players, freak results in the run up and Millwall’s capitulation against Blackburn.

This season, he’d been in steady decline.

His defeatist attitude was akin to the David Moyes era and his claims his hands are tied were only because he’s mainly the one tying the knots himself.

If Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts had the beating of their men nearly every game but were being nullified and the strikers were getting no service, why not swap them around so they could get past and put in an early cross?

If Bradley Dack is the answer, I seem to have forgotten the question and Mowbray’s habit of calling out the young lads publicly was shocking.

I also found it so unprofessional that he constantly talked to the press with a mouth full of sweets, and don’t get me started on the Boss gilet!

It was the right decision to part ways with Mowbray, and I’d just like to add that in my opinion, Kristjaan Speakman is the best thing to happen to Sunderland in years, and almost every button he’s pushed has improved us.

He’s calm, collected and not afraid to make big calls. We’re in the best shape we’ve been in as a club probably in my lifetime in terms of not seeing players picked off cheaply, and we’re also an attractive place for young talent, which will secure our future and hopefully make us a force when we do go back up.

The biggest thing for me is that we conduct ourselves professionally and in private.

There’s no talk of ‘magic carpets’ and £50 million war chests. The grief he gets is as if he’s some sort of chancer and failure, and I just don’t see the logic in it.

Roll on Leeds!

Paul Robinson

Ed’s Note [Phil]: Hi, Paul. Thanks for your letter.

Almost a week on from Mowbray’s departure, I’m still mulling over the possible benefits and potential downsides of losing a head coach of his experience and for whom the players really seemed to enjoy playing.

It’s a tricky one to try and untangle but as you rightly say, the worrying signs of a head coach on a downward trend had been there for quite some time and they clearly felt that a tipping point had been reached.

Mowbray had certainly made tactical and selection errors this season which had turned us into a fairly inconsistent side, but Saturday’s victory over West Brom felt like a real boost for everyone, and the attitude of the players was great during the game, too.

To a large extent, and certainly by the time of his departure, he’d fulfilled the brief he was given when he arrived.

He’d overseen the development of an exciting squad who are capable of playing thrilling football, and there’s no doubt in my mind that whoever takes over will have plenty to work with and a genuine chance of taking us into the top six and on another playoff run next spring.

This is an extremely attractive job for any coach who wants to achieve something noteworthy, and I trust that they’ll make the right decision when it comes to Mowbray’s replacement.

Millwall v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Dylan Hepworth/MB Media/Getty Images

Dear Roker Report,

It’s been a while since I wrote in and well over four decades since I read Charles Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ at school, but Stoke City and Sunderland AFC form a good epitaph to the famous novel.

Stoke has a very rich ownership group who’ll back their manager to the hilt to make them successful, and they’re loyal and committed.

They’re delighted to have secured a manager with an ego and ambition that knows no bounds. He felt he could mould a club in his own image to compete with the elite of the game and of course he deserves and demanded a salary in line with the task.

This year, Stoke have spent £11 million on securing the kind of seasoned players that can compete with the best.

They have the seventh highest wage bill in the league at £18 million as they try to compete with the clubs that have parachute funds. Unfortunately, things haven’t gone well so far as they sit in twentieth place, two points above the drop zone.

Discontent is building in the Potteries at the lack of progress, and it deepens after each bad result. A rebellion may be coming and the guillotines are being sharpened.

Conversely, Sunderland have a transfer surplus of over £1 million heading into the January window as we’ve brought in more revenue from player sales than we’ve spent on broadening the squad.

We run on a sustainable model and a strategy for long term success based on identifying global talent. Uniquely, there’s an emphasis on getting the right type of player based upon not just talent, but character and hunger for success rather than greed for a quick payday.

We don’t use a manager but we’ve separated the transfer business and operations from the coaching, to allow focus in each area.

Player acquisition is a participative endeavour with the recruitment team, club hierarchy and coaching staff all involved. Despite having the twenty first highest wage bill in the division at £9 million, we sit in the playoff spots after also securing a top six berth last year, surprising many onlookers in the process.

The club also ruthlessly adheres to its vision and strategy, and staff either get onboard or they’re free to leave, including coaches who aren’t fully engaged or players who won’t commit to the cause.

The net result is that it’s a club very much on the rise and depending on your allegiance, it’s either the best of times or the worst of times.

To me, this is definitely the ‘best of times’ and the most exciting period in our long history.

Surprisingly, some of my brethren don’t see it this way and yearn for the Stoke City model again rather than embrace progress. Can you help me better understand their concern?


Ed’s Note [Phil]: Thanks for getting in touch!

At the time of writing, Stoke City are currently looking for yet another boss after Alex Neil departed on Sunday evening, so in that sense, we’re in the same boat as the Potters as we both seek replacements in order to fulfil our season’s objectives.

Clearly, the pot of gold that Neil was seeking when he left Sunderland wasn’t at the end of the rainbow above the bet365 Stadium, and I must admit that his downfall in the Potteries is deeply amusing, not least because he spent the summer loading City’s squad with ‘his’ players, only to see things go badly wrong when the season began.

As for the question of whether we’d rather be onboard with the ‘Sunderland way’ or the Stoke City method, the answer is fairly obvious, in my opinion.

There’s a clear plan at Sunderland nowadays, with pathways into the first team for younger players, a cosmopolitan squad filled with talented individuals, and a recruitment policy that ensures we get the best value for both arrivals and departures, which was highlighted by the sale of Ross Stewart to Southampton.

It’s taken us at least a decade to get with the times, but the penny has finally dropped and I believe this is exactly what a club such as Sunderland should be doing.

Sunderland v West Bromwich Albion - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Dear Roker Report,

I’m writing this after listening to a week of TotalSport on BBC Newcastle, a decision I’ve come to regret.

I love the show. It’s great after a win and I usually enjoy the insights from the pundits. Barnsey is a brilliant commentator, Benno is hilariously sarcastic and it usually makes for great listening.

Admittedly, I’m probably not the target demographic for the show.

I’m twenty three and you’d probably expect me to be listening to a podcast, but I’m also Sunderland mad and if there’s any commentary about the club, I’ll read it and I’ll listen to it.

However, this past week has made me want to scream at the radio.

On the sacking of Tony Mowbray, I think it was right.

I was at the Millwall and Huddersfield games and they were dire but they were also the same. No clear tactics, no instructions, and Mowbray looked like a man who’d simply given up, and I hate to say that because he’s a nice bloke.

Ultimately, I felt the decision was absolutely correct, and I credit the club for how swiftly they acted before things turned toxic.

Afterwards, I turned straight to the commentary, to Roker Rapport and other podcasts, and then to the radio.

The RR view was perfectly reasonable: ‘We recognise that we’ve been on a downhill spiral and although we like Mowbray, it was coming’.

How do you think BBC Newcastle reacted? Pure meltdown.

‘Terrible decision’, ‘Mowbray has worked wonders’, ‘three points off the playoffs’.

Opinions are fair enough, but what they refused to recognise was that performances were deteriorating. The conversation then turned to Kristjaan Speakman, and that ‘the strikers aren’t good enough’, ‘terrible recruitment’, ‘he’s picking the team, etc’.

Let’s look at each of those points…

‘The strikers aren’t good enough’

I understand this point completely.

When you’ve signed four strikers and none of them have scored a goal, of course people are going to look at them, but there’s also been chances that they should’ve done better with.

I could mention Hemir a few times in this one. Mason Burstow has been fairly nonexistent. Nazariy Rusyn has looked sharp but he’s only had a few games, and Eliezer Mayenda is the same.

How can we judge the ability of these players based on such a limited sample of their ability? What does that do for their confidence?

However, there’s a wider point to this and I’ll point to the Huddersfield game.

In one of Mowbray’s aimless ‘throw on the subs and hope they’ll change the game’ moments, he brought on Hemir and Burstow. Two six foot-plus strikers, and how many crosses were put into the box?

Even before they were brought on, I watched Mayenda. His movement was excellent and he was making direct runs in behind, but not one of them was picked out and to the point where he was having to run out to the wings to get a touch of the ball.

Unsurprising, given Mowbray relied on his wingers so much.

‘Terrible recruitment’

I’ll admit that we’re short in some areas.

The lack of a Corry Evans replacement really frustrates me but to judge the whole recruitment process based on that is ludicrous.

Jobe was an inspired signing and we’re yet to see the ability of most of the recruits because Mowbray refused to properly rotate the squad until he knew he was coming to the end of his tenure and Adil Aouchiche was chucked in for two games.

Look at the players we’ve signed under this structure: Dan Ballard, Trai Hume, Jack Clarke, Patrick Robert, and Pierre Ekwah.

I rest my case.

‘Speakman is picking the team’

I wish he was, because maybe we would’ve seen Luke O’Nien out of the team after some of his antics and poor performances.

Maybe Jenson Seelt and Nectar Triantis would’ve had more opportunities than the Birmingham game, where Mowbray was forced into the change.

Obviously I don’t want Speakman to choose the team because that’s not what he’s there for, but what I want is ample rotation and the ability to drop players when they’ve been poor.

Looking to the future, the next head coach is going to be an important choice for the ownership group.

For me, the priorities have to be that they buy into the model, that they’re able to change things when they aren’t working but still maintain a level of performance.

The problem is that whoever comes in, I fear they won’t be welcomed by a section of the fanbase.

This would be the type of fan who wants Neil Warnock because they want ‘Championship experience’, or someone who wants Roy Keane and Kevin Phillips. In the words of Jose Mourinho, ‘I prefer not to speak’.

Personally, I’d prefer the new manager to be European.

Generally, European teams have been playing under our ‘model’ for a number of years. It’s one of the reasons I love watching German football and also because the ‘50+1’ rule doesn’t allow murderous regimes with endless amounts of money to take over clubs.

I don’t want the new head coach to have Championship experience because generally managers with Championship experience haven’t worked under this model before, and I see that as a bigger risk than a foreign candidate who has.

I’ll end this rant with one line: modern structures require modern coaches.

Paul Sanderson

Ed’s Note [Phil]: Hi, Paul. Thanks for your letter.

I agree that BBC Newcastle haven’t covered themselves in glory with some of their recent coverage, and some of it has been borderline absurd, with one caller predicting a ‘hostile reception’ for the owner and sporting director at the West Brom game (which didn’t materialise in the slightest).

Fundamentally, I think it’s a byproduct of a head coach who always felt slightly too close to the media, and what we’ve seen recently is the downside of that particular relationship. The new head coach, whoever that may be, certainly needs to avoid becoming too pally with the local sports press, to say the least.

Regarding the points you’ve raised, I think the main source of encouragement is that there’s nothing wrong at Sunderland that can’t be fixed by a new voice, smarter approaches to games, greater tactical flexibility and perhaps most importantly, stronger faith in the wider squad.

The immediate task for Tony Mowbray’s replacement is to get his ideas across to the players, to convince them to buy in to how he wants to play, and ensure that everyone is fully aligned with the vision he chooses to implement.

Do that, and a top six finish is easily achievable during the remainder of the season.

Sunderland v West Bromwich Albion - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Dear Roker Report,

I recently saw the news that Tony Mowbray was released by Sunderland and I’d like to apply for his job.

I’m aware that Gav and Chris are the real brains behind Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman, so thought I’d apply straight to you.

My justification is that I’ve been a Sunderland fan since 1978 and I’ve seen us lose at more places than I care to mention (Coventry 5-0 in the League Cup, Walsall, Southend, Aldershot and all the best places) so I feel I’m well qualified to know what doesn’t work.

My current theory is that unlike some people, I don’t think ‘the model’ is the problem.

I believe the squad is really good, that the players are exciting and the experienced players are plentiful enough. So what’s wrong?

Well, it seems that only certain small things need to change and we’ll be charging up the division and beating the Mags before you know it!

  • We’re conceding too many silly goals, we’re poor at corners and we’re not great when countered if we lose the ball in the opposition half.
  • We have a lot of young players who aren’t ready to play ninety or one hundred minutes for forty six games a season.
  • We’re not scoring enough goals from forwards, or any players, in fact!
  • There’s no plan B if things aren’t working

I can solve all these with a couple of small changes.

Anthony Patterson and the full backs are basically great. Dan Ballard is a man mountain and Luke O’Nien is a wonderful player and I love him but he isn’t the best centre back.

He makes up for a lack of height by pulling players and giving away penalties and he can’t reach crosses as well as some, so move him out of the centre back position and play Jenson Seelt or Nectar Triantis alongside Ballard.

By bringing them into the team, we have cover for inevitably losing Ballard to injury or suspension and each player would get time to adapt to Championship football with Ballard alongside them.

Next, Dan Neil and Pierre Ekwah are struggling for form at the moment so Luke, in you go to defensive midfield!

Play Neil or Ekwah with O’Nien and they can share game time, and play them both, if or when O’Nien is out through suspension. He’s experienced in the middle of the park and he can steady the young lads from there.

Next, play Jobe or Adil Aouchiche in front of midfield. Again, this would be sharing the load.

Finally, it’s time for inverted wingers.

We aren’t creating enough chances for our forwards, so I have an idea that I call ‘inverted inverted wingers’. Swap Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts and get the crosses into the forwards.

Also, for a plan B, we could put another forward on in place of Jobe or Aouchiche if we have to, and go 4-4-2, either later in games or against weaker teams from the off.

Finally, we need to make use of our large squad by getting them involved in the games more regularly. That would keep the players happy, would protect us against injuries because the players are ready to go straight in, and would ensure fresh legs and hungry players on the pitch.

Problems solved, and if you’re interested in my application, please reply to:

PS: Love the podcasts – keep them coming!

John W

Ed’s Note [Phil]: Hi, John. Thanks for getting in touch and for your kind words about the podcast!

You’ve certainly offered some interesting suggestions as to how we can go about solving some of the issues that are holding us back, and who knows, perhaps the new head coach will be a genuine forward thinker who can devise some imaginative strategies in order to get the best out of what’s undoubtedly a very talented squad.

One thing is for sure: these lads haven’t become bad players on the back of recent results.

They’ve simply lost their direction in recent weeks and the victory over West Brom was much needed. Let’s hope they can back it up on Tuesday night and hopefully impress a new potential head coach into the bargain.

Sunderland v West Bromwich Albion - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images


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