In the context of how Sunderland’s being run these days, Tony Mowbray’s departure wasn’t a surprise.
He was evidently growing increasingly frustrated by ‘the model’ – particularly in relation to the strikers he’d been provided with – and it’s said suggestions of players we should move for in the summer were largely ignored, In the context of how Sunderland’s being run these days, Tony Mowbray’s departure wasn’t a surprise.
He was evidently growing increasingly frustrated by ‘the model’ – particularly in relation to the strikers he’d been provided with – and it’s said suggestions of players we should move for in the summer were largely ignored, Bradley Dack aside.
That said, over the course of the 15 months he was with the club, Mowbray did an excellent job. He not only steadied the team after Alex Neil’s departure, but got them playing the best football I’ve ever seen from a Sunderland side. I’ve got the best part of 40 years watching the lads under my belt – others, who’ve been watching since the 60s, have also said similar.
He’s also made players significantly better, which is key part of the head coach’s role at Sunderland. Jack Clarke, Trai Hume, Anthony Patterson, Dan Neil, and Dan Ballard are all players who are noticeably improved post-Mowbray than pre.
Yes, we’ve been in a bad run of form - if you’re looking at it objectively over the past nine games (almost a fifth of a season) we’re in relegation form. But there’s a strong argument to say when you’re working to a long-term plan – as we are – we should be above reacting to form. Yes, we’ve been on a bad run, but Mowbray hadn’t ‘lost the dressing room’ as is often trotted out when managers go. Chances are, results would have picked up again and, after all, inconsistency comes with the ‘young player’ territory.
I mentioned on the podcast we did in the minutes after the news of Mowbray’s departure that there’s a part of me that wonders if we’re being too reactionary. Yes, the club’s been ruthless in its ‘pursuit of a high-performance culture’, but are we also being impatient?
I think back to the late 80s, early 90s when Denis Smith was in charge. He had four and a half seasons at the helm, and while we went through bad spells of results during that time, we stuck with it as we knew it would turn. Peter Reid had similar. I suspect that, if the current regime had been in charge in the late 90s, Reid’s tenure would have ended after that Reading game.
It’s been more than a decade since we had a manager who saw out two full seasons – Steve Bruce was the last – and while we’ve had some poor managers in that time, they’re certainly not all bad. Allardyce, of course, would likely have stayed the distance, as might Alex Neil. But we’re not exactly fertile ground for managers to walk.
Of course, today, we don’t have a manager position available, we have a head coach – which is far more disposable than any manager has been. In theory, changing ‘head coach’ doesn’t come with anywhere near the same upheaval as changing manager, as they’re purely involved with coaching and selecting the side.
The overall strategy, the types of players we bring in, is decided by the ‘powers that be’ – i.e Kristjaan Speakman.
This is now a huge test for Speakman, and the pressure will now be on him to get this next appointment right.
He arrived days before Lee Johnson was appointed – we’re led to believe he was involved in that appointment, but who knows to what extent – and since then, we’ve appointed head coaches to do a specific immediate job. In Alex Neil’s case, it was get us up. With Tony Mowbray, it was stabilisation.
Now, he’s got the chance to get his ‘ideal’ person in – and in truth, it's likely neither Neil or Mowbray truly fit the bill. If you want to know what ‘the bill’ is, it’s fair to say ‘think Francesco Farioli’. It’ll likely be someone from a coaching background, in that 30-45 age bracket.
So I reckon the pressure’s on for Speakman now. He’s subject to a bit of criticism online – his ‘corporate speak’ doesn’t always go down well. But, again looking objectively at the progress we’ve made since he was appointed, we’re firmly heading in the right direction. Or ‘an upward trajectory’ as Speakman would say. We’ve gone from League One to competing well in the Championship, from a squad of Will Grigg, Max Power and Callum McFadzean to Dan Ballard, Jack Clarke and Jobe Bellingham.
Given that, it’s difficult to criticise the results of the work he’s done so far.
But we’re now entering a new chapter for him – one that’s going to test both his ‘ideal head coach’ and his ‘model’.
Because, whether it comes in January or in the summer, we’re about to enter the first real round of player sales. That’s all part of it – buy young players cheap, develop them and sell them – and it’s what we then do with that money that will tell us everything we need to know about how the club’s going to progress over the coming seasons. We already have the Stewart money banked, so January will be interesting.
Mowbray – and Alex Neil – wanted more experience, something which, it seems, the model doesn’t allow. And I think they’re right – we’ve seen over recent weeks that, when things aren’t working quite as we’d like them to, we can struggle to change course, grab the game, and change things. The players attitude hasn’t been an issue at all – we’ve got a bunch who’ll work their socks off – but that know-how can’t be underestimated, and it’s an area we’re lacking.
Of course, once Mowbray went public with his objections to ‘the model’ it was clearly only going to go one way. Whether you disagree or agree with how the club’s doing things, it wasn’t right for Mowbray to speak out in such a way. I was stunned the club’s media put it out to be honest. Maybe it was released strategically, as it gave the club the ammunition they needed to make the change.
And, regardless of whether you think he should have gone or not, there’s no denying he’s struggled tactically over the past few months, and showed little ability to change it.
It’s going to be a tough ask to take over a squad that is likely feeling pretty let down by the way Mowbray’s been treated.
Whoever comes in faces a tough, tough month or so, which could actually make or break him at Sunderland, as short-term as it sounds.
But I get the sense that all eyes will be as much on Kristjaan Speakman as the new incumbent of the dugout.
Because if the new appointment can’t get much more out of the team than Tony Mowbray did, then Kyril-Louis Dreyfus could logically be looking in the direction of the boardroom, rather than the dressing room, the next time a change is needed.