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Let me start by making it clear that I don’t particularly enjoy being unequivocal or expressing misgivings about a new Sunderland head coach before we’ve had a chance to see what they can bring to the table.
Even in the case of ultimately unsuccessful appointments such as Simon Grayson, Chris Coleman and Phil Parkinson, I tried to take a balanced view while attempting to talk up the supposed attributes of each boss.
Grayson ‘knew the league’ and would be a ‘stabilising influence’ during 2017/2018. Coleman had good pedigree from his time as Wales manager, and Parkinson was a ‘steady hand on the tiller’ who, if given time, could guide us to promotion from League One.
In all three cases, my optimism proved spectacularly misplaced and as Sunderland look set to make their fourth head coaching appointment of the Kristjaan Speakman/Kyril Louis-Dreyfus era in the the shape of Michael Beale, I find myself breaking a long-held habit and taking my place very firmly on one side of the ‘for and against’ argument.
Simply put, Beale doesn’t seem like the right man for Sunderland whatsoever, and I don’t believe that he’ll bring any real success to our club - whatever the current definition of ‘success’ may be.
Ever since it became obvious in recent days that he was set to replace the popular and respected Tony Mowbray, I’ve looked at this appointment from every angle and tried to understand the reasoning behind it, and I’ve failed to do so.
I can’t see any genuine logic behind the decision to give him the job (availability and a lack of compensation to be paid doesn’t count as particularly sound logic, in my view) and given that Mowbray departed on excellent terms with the fans albeit after a downturn in results, Beale faces a sizeable task to prove that he can build on the foundations laid by his predecessor.
Despite proclamations of his ability due to his background in Premier League academies and his association with Steven Gerrard, Beale’s CV is undistinguished, with a reasonably decent spell at QPR (on whom he walked out in circumstances that weren’t dissimilar to Alex Neil) followed by a Rangers tenure that seemed to promise far more than it ultimately delivered.
He failed to bridge the gap between the Old Firm rivals and there are accounts of him falling out with Fashion Sakala, a player who was popular with the fans. Few tears seemed to be shed on the blue side of Glasgow when he was eventually dismissed.
The second area of concern is around Beale’s character, and although you could easily brush this off as the views of a bitter fanbase for whom the gulf to Celtic remains sizeable (although there are signs that under his successor Philippe Clement, there might be a genuine title race in Scotland this season), surely it’s unwise to dismiss their views out of hand.
Phrases such as ‘gaslighter’ and ‘he talks a better game than his teams play’ have been used in association with him, and even David Tanner, the respected former Sky Sports football anchor, seemed to express surprise when rumours of Beale’s Sunderland arrival began to gather momentum.
I’d be fascinated to hear what he said in the job interview about his time as manager of Rangers.— David Tanner (@DavidTannerTV) December 15, 2023
And how he spun his departure from QPR. https://t.co/czZ5Kh9Ahl
This is a concern, because even in the morally dubious modern game, character matters and particularly at a club such as Sunderland, where arrogant bosses who can’t back up their hubris often find themselves up against it from the word go.
Mowbray’s most endearing qualities were his humility, his openness, and his general sense of decency, values that he undoubtedly transmitted to his players.
Although not a Wearside native, he had no trouble tapping into what the club meant to its supporters and by the time he left, he’d been taken to our hearts and sent on his way with best wishes - a rare occurrence in itself at Sunderland.
Will Beale be able to get the fans onside, to command the respect of his players and provide them with the backing and guidance that Mowbray was so willing to give? I’d be lying if I said I was optimistic about that.
It’s one thing to be cocksure and blessed with immense confidence in your ability if you can back it up when it matters, but it’s another to swagger into the dressing room and believe that you’ve got all the angles covered.
I find it difficult to imagine the likes of Alex Pritchard and Patrick Roberts responding to his apparently chirpy and confrontational brand of man management, and the same applies to local lads such as Dan Neil and Anthony Patterson.
Looking at the bigger picture and amid the relief that a replacement is finally in place, it’s difficult to escape the notion that Beale’s appointment represents the conclusion of a process that went awry and was ultimately based on convenience instead of a ruthless desire to bring in the right man.
After almost openly courting a number of European coaching prospects with no success, the fact that the pendulum has swung in this direction hints that we’ve botched the transition. It seems beyond ridiculous to imagine that Beale would’ve been high on the list when the process began, but as other candidates have fallen by the wayside, he seems to have ended up as the last man standing.
All you can assume is that he gave one hell of a slick interview, that he sold himself as some kind of footballing visionary, and the club hierarchy responded with, ‘Yep. He’s available, he’s young and he speaks well, so let’s get him in.’ Sound reasoning? Debatable, in my view.
For Speakman, this has the air of an either/or, ‘red or black’ decision and one that, if it goes wrong, is only going to lead to renewed criticism and scepticism about the club’s direction of travel.
After the victories over West Brom and Leeds, the feel good vibe was punctured with the Beale speculation, the fiasco surrounding the ticket allocation for the Newcastle FA Cup tie, and Saturday’s loss to Bristol City. We need to get things back on an even keel, and rapidly.
In terms of progression, there’s no doubt that Alex Neil was an upgrade on Lee Johnson and that Tony Mowbray was an upgrade on Neil, but I fail to see how Beale, on any metric, represents an upgrade on Mowbray.
Is he likely to get us promoted? Are our players likely to improve significantly under him and continue to increase their potential transfer value as a result?
These are legitimate concerns and it’s fair to voice them - even if you’re still broadly in favour of how the club is being run on the football side and you believe that those making the key decisions have plenty of credit in the bank.
Amid all of the discussion, one thing is absolutely clear: Beale needs to get off to a very fast start as Sunderland head coach and will need to deliver positive results swiftly. We have a capable and talented squad that clearly needs a new voice to guide them, and despite our inconsistency, the top six remains an achievable target.
He’ll be given a period of grace and the time to show what he can do, as he should be, but it’s hard to escape the notion that this is an awkward fit and that Beale will be swimming against the tide from day one.
I want to be wrong and I hope I will be, but I fear that this is the first major head coaching misstep of the Speakman/Dreyfus era at Sunderland, and if it doesn’t yield the results we all hope it will, the questions might be more awkward than ever.