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A sacking at Sunderland? Colour me surprised.
That seems to have been the overriding reaction to the dismissal of Tony Mowbray on Monday, a man whom almost nobody within our support wanted rid of (disregarding a tiny fringe of X users with nothing better to do than stir the pot).
Despite having perhaps unexpectedly guided a newly promoted side to within a whisker of football’s richest game, stuttering results combined with the apparent alacrity with which our current ownership group jettison anyone who might be getting ‘past it’ means that even fans who loved Mowbray’s calm demeanour and positive approach on the pitch don’t seem to be kicking up much of a fuss.
Mogga might have become a cult figure, but In Speakman We Trust.
This faith is generally well earned, in my eyes. Yes, the departure of Danny Batth and Ross Stewart due to age and the lure of sweet south coast cash respectively may not have pleased everyone, especially given that we seem to have adequately replaced neither, but at least there is a logical defence to both.
We buy players young and relatively cheap; sell them as they age, get injured, or attract significant sums of money which we can reinvest and begin the cycle all over again. This doesn’t mean we will get every decision right, but at least this is a coherent way to run a football club. One which I’m sure Brighton and Brentford fans would tell you works rather better than anything else we’ve done over the past decade or so.
And so, from this point of view, I can see why this latest manoeuvre has generated anticipation or bemusement rather than outright anger. We lost a very successful manager last season, and went on to do rather better than he did (that 5-0 aside). So who’s to say that won’t happen again, particularly when we have lined other candidates up in advance again? Please, God, tell me we’ve got candidates lined up.
Clearly, there are underlying concerns about the style of play and results of late which justify the sacking too. As others have noted, we have been having far too many shots resulting in far too few goals recently. I can only presume that this set alarm bells ringing upstairs, suggesting that the team isn’t getting into the right attacking positions often enough and is resorting to some often rather wayward shooting. Combined with some naive defensive errors, this has cost us points against teams we really should be beating - painful home defeats to Cardiff and Huddersfield both spring to mind, unfortunately.
This is the point where I’ve got to take issue with the sacking, though.
Is it really Tony Mowbray’s fault that we lost Ross Stewart, Amad, and Ellis Simms, to be replaced with several strikers with next to no existing experience of top level senior football outside of Ukraine?
Was it Tony Mowbray who hounded out Danny Batth in order to play a back four held together by Luke “progressive ball carries” O’Nien? (Sorry Luke, I love you - but I’m not sure your strengths are being well used in that position and formation in a team supposedly chasing Premier League promotion).
OK, it probably was Tony Mowbray who did his old mate Dack a favour and wangled him a contract to pay for those Turkey teeth - do spare a thought for our Bradley. But as tokens of appreciation go, couldn’t Speakman and co have thought of something a bit more imaginative?
In the circumstances, I think our manager was doing a pretty good job.
Yes, his substitutions were sometimes more erratic than effective. Admittedly, we occasionally seemed to lack a plan B, tactically speaking.
But to have this team, at this stage in its development, sitting just outside the top six and having rarely been outclassed by any opponent this season is surely deserving of more recognition than being unceremoniously booted out.
The principle reason why we aren’t doing better this season wasn’t Mowbray - it was because there are teams with ready-made Championship winning squads: with strikers, even! Mowbray’s criticism of ours may have been the words of a man who knew his number was up, but I’d struggle to find a fan who disagree with his point. And it’ll be some manager who can find a magic fix for that.
Anyway, here we are. Presumably the chances of luring the man overseeing a title charge by a French team other than PSG, namely Nice’s Francesco Farioli, are slim - although you’d never rule it out in the mad world Sunderland seem to inhabit.
Whoever it is, the club’s owners have nailed their colours to the mast: only promotion is enough. And given their predecessor’s popularity, if the new man in charge doesn’t start motoring us in that direction pronto, there won’t be much of a honeymoon. Let’s just hope they get the backing of the boardroom in January, otherwise the rhetoric about the constant pursuit of excellence will ring entirely hollow.
It is this that makes this decision one on which we have to reserve judgement. For now, I have no reason to doubt the club’s ambition, even if it is disquieting for a Sunderland manager to leave without being lured away by a pot of gold over the horizon, or being hounded out as a failure. Who we bring in over the next couple of months, on the pitch and on the sideline, will determine whether the gamble was worthwhile.
More importantly, it is perhaps the biggest test yet of the faith Speakman and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus have built up in their model. Backing obvious decisions with data is one thing; having conviction when it is more marginal, quite another.
Where once we’d have been rolling the dice, now we will be putting a new input into the spreadsheet. Either way, in football you never know what will come out.