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Fan Letters: “Tony Mowbray was made a scapegoat for Kristjaan Speakman’s failures”

Sunderland’s sporting director is under the microscope today, as RR readers have their say on his role in Mowbray’s exit. Got something to say? Email us:

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Dear Roker Report

Whatever you think of Tony Mowbray, we’re still only three points outside the playoffs, and it’s been achieved by a much weaker side- no Ross Stewart, no Amad, and no Danny Batth.

The people of Sunderland pay to support the team and they deserve to know if Mowbray was sacked or whether he walked away, as well as the reason why. Instead, in his statement, Kristjaan Speakman attempted to justify Mowbray’s departure by trying to baffle us with meaningless waffle, a sign of someone who’s uncomfortable with the truth and is trying to cover up their failings.

He needs to be straight with us, because in the north east, we have a saying for people like Speakman. He’s often referred to as a ‘Billy bullshitter’, and yet again he’s playing us like a fiddle.

Despite Mowbray being hailed by Speakman as the man to take Sunderland forward in line with the club’s ambition and strategy, as well as a head coach who has a track record of developing young players, the implication of Speakman’s statement is that he was sacked for failing to deliver on this strategy.

My view is that he walked away before he was made a scapegoat for Speakman’s failings, and in my opinion, the striker issue was the last straw.

If you’re buying players with zero senior experience or who only have experience at a much inferior standard, it’s a huge gamble. Nobody is saying we shouldn't take a chance with these youngsters but if Speakman thinks they’re good enough to replace Stewart and Amad at Championship level, he’s living in cloud cuckoo land.

The role of ‘Sporting Director’ or the Director of Football was initially developed on the continent to assist the head coach but not to dictate to him.

As Mowbray confirmed, Speakman has total control of any incoming or outgoing transfers, the first team head coach isn’t consulted.

Speakman told SAFC Unfiltered that our model was to design a team to play 4-3-3 that had the flexibility to play 3-4-3 and 3-5-2.

He went on to say that the structure is designed to play one up front, so in his preferred 4-3-3 formation, you must play with two wingers. At a supporter’s meeting in February 2022, Speakman and Steve Davison confirmed that a head coach must be appointed who wants to play the style that the players are suited to.

So, Speakman determines who’s bought and sold. He determines what system the first team should play and then he only hires a coach who’s willing to implement that style. This is absolutely nonsense.

Never in the history of football has a club been successful when the head coach has simply been a puppet of the sporting director.

No manager or coach with any self respect and credibility would work under these conditions. As we’ve said before, can you imagine a failed academy manager trying to tell someone like Roy Keane how to play football?

Speakman’s ‘succession planning’ has now seen Lee Johnson sacked after fourteen months, Alex Neil leaving after seven months and now Tony Mowbray departing after fifteen months.

There’s something desperately wrong with Speakman’s methods and modus operandi that’s resulted in the club having three bosses in the last three years.

Come on, Kyril. Surely you must now be questioning what the root cause of the problem is.

Steve Williamson

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

It’s obvious that Mowbray’s exit has divided opinion and left many supporters looking for someone to blame, so it’s not a surprise that Kristjaan Speakman is under the microscope once again.

In the first instance, it’s important to recognise that there are two key factors about the way Sunderland are now operating.

The first is that it’s commonplace in world football, with more elite clubs than ever operating under such a structure.

As sad as it may be for traditionalists, the days of the all-powerful, iron-fisted manager who ran the club on his terms with the board simply there to sign off the cheques are gone, and Sunderland have finally caught up with the times in that respect.

The second key point is this: If Tony Mowbray, a veteran of over eight hundred games in management, wasn’t fully invested in the Sunderland model, why did he take the job in the first place?

He surely would’ve known exactly what kind of environment he’d be working in. It clearly remains the same now as it did when he arrived, and I can’t believe that he would claim the goalposts had been moved following last season’s playoff run.

Ultimately, his departure was clearly based on performances and results, both of which had taken a downturn in recent weeks. Speakman will stand or fall by these decisions, and it’s also important to acknowledge that he’s got the two previous head coaching appointments spot on.

If we want to be successful, sentiment has to take a back seat to the ‘here and now’, and in that sense, the decision was a perfectly reasonable one.

Sunderland v Luton Town - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Dear Roker Report,

I’m a sceptic who’s been a Sunderland fan since 1999, and I wanted to weigh in with a view from the United States.

First, living in the States actually (ostensibly) makes supporting the team easier, because I’m able to subscribe to the web broadcasts that are only available to international fans. It’s great, except for one thing.

To watch it on a mobile device requires you to download an app to a phone or tablet, and about two months ago, the app stopped working and disappeared from the app store.

In short, you have to watch it on a platform that doesn’t exist, and trying to raise this point with the support team is met by nonsensical responses, and requests for a refund are ignored.

The point is that we’re owned by a billionaire who can’t seem to be troubled to acknowledge that it’s bad business practice to sell something that literally doesn’t exist.

From reading your site religiously, I know that customer service is a huge issue over there as well, and I just thought you might like to know the club is as indifferent to international supporters as it is to domestic fans.

From that to on to the on-field issues, and I know there was logic behind firing Tony Mowbray.

You can argue that he hasn’t made the necessary adjustments but the point remains that he took a newly-promoted team to the playoffs, which would’ve been far more winnable if we’d had more central defenders at our disposal.

Players like him and people want to play for him. He’s a selling point but he clearly had zero influence over the players he was given, which is just not smart.

I love that he took every chance he could to subtly throw shade at Kristjaan Speakman and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus by gently reminding people that he wasn’t consulted on transfer policy. It’s easy to take something like that with a grain of salt and think he was just covering himself, but Mowbray doesn’t strike me as that type.

For me at least, it comes down to this: who would you rather do battle with?

Tony Mowbray, a man who looks like he’s been punched once or twice and is still on his feet, or a young man who was born with a platinum spoon in his mouth, who probably wears glasses with fake lenses and who looks like he’s never perspired a day in his life.

In short, I truly don’t understand what Dreyfus is trying to do and I find myself caring less and less, which makes me kind of sad.


Ed’s Note [Phil]: Hi, Mark. Thanks for getting in touch!

It’s unfortunate to hear that you’re experiencing problems with the Sunderland app and that it’s preventing you from watching games.

It’s a long-running issue that shows no signs of being resolved permanently, and I agree that it’s up to those making the key decisions about off-field improvements to ensure that it’s eventually brought up to an acceptable standard.

Regarding Tony Mowbray’s exit, I think it’s fair to say that dispensing with the services of such a popular head coach was always going to generate controversy.

Indeed, I wasn’t thrilled when the news broke, but at the same time, the reason the likes of Speakman are in post is to make the big calls for the good of the club.

If Mowbray’s replacement can help us to progress and move closer to promotion, the decision will be vindicated. Likewise, if we don’t hit that target, it’s right that Speakman should be criticised, but I think balance is important and there’s often too much one-sided and blinkered criticism of him for my liking.

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

Dear Roker Report,

Matt’s recent article on your site was spot on.

There’s no way Sunderland will get promoted from the Championship as long as Kristjaan Speakman is running the show. Tony Mowbray is a scapegoat for Speakman’s awful recruitment.

Phil Conroy

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

As I said above, it’s easy to turn Speakman into the bad guy after decisions like this, but it’s important to remember that he’s also done a lot of good since arriving at Sunderland, and that needs to be acknowledged as well.

The way we’re operating now represents a break with the past at the Stadium of Light, and although we haven’t perfected it yet, I see absolutely no reason why we can’t achieve our goal of top flight promotion as a result of the way we now do business, and hopefully under a capable and adaptable new head coach.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images


Pause for thought


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