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Three seemingly innocuous days that may shape the immediate & long-term future of Sunderland AFC

It started with Millwall away, then drawing the Mags at home in the FA Cup followed by the sacking of our head coach to end a turbulent 72 hours in the life of a Sunderland supporter. 

Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

Well, well, well. What a few days it has been. In the space of three days, three quite sizeable events have taken place.

First up was Milwall away. I was there and it was freezing! You often hear people talk about Millwall and their fans and it was as intimidating as it sounds. The walk to the ground surrounded by their fans and the atmosphere itself was pretty hostile.

The local station was closed so the opportunity arose to stop off at some pubs along the way, most notably the London Branch’s meeting point of Southwark Brewing Company - a lovely spot and I would recommend it to any London-based supporters out there reading this to give them a visit.

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

The game itself wasn’t memorable. For the first time in a few years, our away following seemed flat. It may have been the weather. It may have been the inevitability that we weren’t ever looking likely to put a poor Millwall side to the sword. Either way, it seemed a very typical Sunderland performance under Mowbray.

I left the Den, along with everyone else who was there, feeling subdued, frozen to the bone and, not confident for the next run of games. The game won’t last long in the memory and wasn’t a sizeable event, but Mowbray’s comments after were.

These comments, undermining the model and challenging the hierarchy, ultimately led to the end of his tenure and show just how ruthless this regime will be in fulfilling their vision.

The next sizeable event happened the day after when we drew the Mags in the FA Cup. On the face of it, the fixture fills me with excitement, as it always does. Then, with the realization of what I saw the day before sinking in; this fixture starts to fill me with enormous dread. This has all the potential of an FA Cup classic. It’s more than a game it’s a rivalry. It’s good vs evil, our values versus their greed. The mag’s dirty money will likely be the difference and they’ll be able to call on some mercenaries to make that difference. But a cupset could quite possibly be on the cards, and how sweet would that be?

Everton FC v Newcastle United - Premier League
Beheaddie Howe
Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Our ethos and our recruitment strategy is that of a well-run, modern-day football club. Just because the Mags are in Europe doesn’t mean they are a well-run club, quite the contrary.

For me, success doesn’t mean a club is well-run. Brighton and Brentford are well-run. It’s taken years for them to get where they are. We are at the beginning of that journey and will get there eventually if we stay the course. No matter what happens in this tie, we will win the moral battle of how are clubs are run. That we should surely all agree on.

Finally, on to Mowbray’s sacking on Monday evening. I, unlike many others, was not surprised to hear the news. It seems that time had caught up with Mowbray, especially from a tactical point of view. In the Plymouth game, there were positives. Huddersfield there were none. On a Baltic winter afternoon in the capital against Millwall, we looked like a team who had run out of ideas other than to give the ball to Clarke and hope.

Sunderland vs Huddersfield Town Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A young dynamic coach could turn this team around. It’s that simple. I never bought into this idea that it was the team who had forgotten to play with the strikers. I felt that the tactics developed with this team never lent itself to a striker playing. That was on Mowbray. He’s done everything we needed him to. He brought stability to a potentially difficult time for the club and succeeded in getting us to the playoffs last year. This should not cloud our judgment on the course KLD and Speakman have plotted.

It is a risk to get rid of Mowbray in December, but it’s a risk worth taking.

Let’s break down this risk into three questions. Where we were before Mowbray, where we are now, and where we want to be.

Where we were:

When Mowbray arrived, we needed a safe pair of hands to guide us through our first Championship season. He ticked all the boxes we needed to tick. He was a proven Championship head coach who knew the league and its pitfalls. His track record of bringing through youngsters lent itself to our philosophy too. There was a reason why Blackburn pursued other avenues to get a new head coach; Mowbray could not take that team to the playoffs or that next level. Blackburn and Boro fans warned us; about his rigidity with tactics and inability to affect games with subs. In general, he was exactly what we needed for that time but he had some significant drawbacks to take us further than flirting with the playoff places.

Where are we now:

We now have a squad capable of competing in the Championship. In that sense, Mowbray has served his purpose. He made us safe, but tactically under Mowbray we looked suspect and as other writers for the Roker Report, in particular Dan Harrison has eloquently clarified in his latest article, our team has been unable to answer some basic questions of breaking down compact teams. We are easy to work out and unfortunately, modern football demands that players and coaches are savvy enough to work out solutions to these problems. This team is ripe to be taken on and developed tactically now.

Where we want to be:

We want to be a Premier League club within the next five years. Not only that. We want to have foundations in place so we can compete when we get there. That requires the team to be adept tactically and have a squad capable of dealing with problems that naturally come when competing at the highest level.

Burnley romped the league last year and is struggling to compete a level up this year. Same with Sheffield Utd. We must accept that this team under Mowbray, who have struggled to break down Plymouth, Huddersfield, and Millwall would struggle moving forward in this league, let alone the Premier League. We need some new ideas to take these players on. A change is needed and this was the time to do it.

This decision could come back to bite us. Of course, it could. ‘He who dares’ rings true now. Some of these names being mentioned excite me enormously. It doesn’t matter if they are unknown. What matters is their ideas and philosophy. What this team lacks now is playing different tactics for different games and having multiple ways of playing. Adding a head coach to our ranks that can do this would ignite this team and all candidates that have been mentioned will have innovative and dynamic ideas on tactics.

Again, typically, there are concerns with some of the names being thrown around. Mainly due to them being unknown, I suppose. If we went with known names it could mean we end up with a Lampard or a Rooney-type head coach. I for one would not wish that on us as fans. I can guarantee no one knew of De Zerbi before he took the helm at Brighton and look how that has worked out for Brighton.

Ultimately, this next appointment will be huge to our future. Get it right and this club will move forward rapidly. We have the chance to employ an exciting and forward-thinking coach who could take the club and our players to another level. Who knows, with a new head coach who has some excellent, forward-thinking tactics; we could give those up the road a real game in a month. It would be a wonderful and romantic tale of how the beautiful game could be won. No blood money, just football done right.


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