Back in August, the appointment of Tony Mowbray as Alex Neil’s successor was met with some interesting responses - and not all of them positive after the former Blackburn boss was hired to replace Alex Neil.
To the naysayers, he was a ‘yes-man’, a ‘football dinosaur’, and the kind of dull and uninspiring appointment that only a club completely lacking in ambition would make.
There was undoubtedly an uneasy feeling after the immensely popular Neil left for Stoke, and the timing of the change in the dugout was less than ideal as well.
However, six months later, those initial doubts have been dispelled in the most emphatic fashion. From ‘Phil Parkinson Mark Two’ to a much-respected figure among the fans, the former Middlesbrough skipper is proving to be a shrewd choice to lead the club into its new era.
Let’s make no bones about it: Mowbray is doing a sterling job at this moment in time.
Not only is he picking up results, he’s managing a young and inexperienced squad superbly well.
He’s the father figure that such a group needs but he’s also a no-nonsense presence on the touchline who can alter the course of a game with some smart in-game management, which he certainly did against Reading last weekend.
Tuesday night’s victory over QPR, a showcase of defensive solidity combined with some sumptuous attacking play and creativity, might’ve come as something of a surprise- especially given Mowbray’s team selection and tactical setup.
However, as we left West London with three more points and another clean sheet, the feeling was one of complete vindication for the boss, his approach, and the decisions he’s currently making.
He rotated his squad, tinkered with the formation, and it paid off.
No Amad and no Edouard Michut? No problem. He trusted the other lads to step up and deliver and boy, did they do just that.
That shows progression in itself, not least because squad rotation in recent times was a byword for confusion and disjointed performances but under Mowbray, it’s enabling us to compete strongly, even in the midst of such a punishing schedule.
Faith in youth has been one of the cornerstones of the club’s new ethos, and that’s certainly being illustrated regularly.
He opted to stick with Dan Neil as the young midfielder endured a frustrating spell, and it eventually yielded results. Similarly, he steadfastly backed the talented-yet-frustrating Jack Clarke, and he’s been rewarded with three goals in three games from the former Leeds winger.
This isn’t to say that we haven’t endured some frustrating results under Mowbray and early in his tenure, it wasn’t all plain sailing.
The collapse at home to Burnley, the non-performance against Cardiff and the lifeless display against West Bromwich Albion were definite missed opportunities, but he simply accepted that as part of this squad’s development, such setbacks were par for the course.
It didn’t mean that the strategy was wrong- it simply meant that the bigger picture had to be seen and that faith had to be shown in what’s undoubtedly the most exciting Sunderland squad for many years.
His calmness and experience, gained during a managerial career that’s taken in over 800 games, have had a huge impact and as such, we’re now managing games far more effectively than we did at the start of the season.
Another area in which Mowbray is succeeding is the way he’s embraced the role and the pressure that comes with it.
If Neil was a hired gun, brought in to do a job with zero emotional investment in the club, Mowbray has taken an altogether different approach.
He’s brought humour and genuine warmth to the job, unifying the supporters and giving us all reason to believe once again. At fifty nine, he’s got little to prove in the game and unlike some of his predecessors, he looks to be genuinely enjoying himself in the Stadium of Light hot seat.
Whereas Neil’s engagement with the media consisted of clipped responses, abrasive exchanges and little given away (probably the right approach at the time as we fought to escape League One) Mowbray has shown a willingness to explain his decision making and has never shied away from criticism when things don’t work out.
With a head coach who’s completely in control of things and a squad of players who are responding brilliantly to his methods, it’s an exciting time to be a Sunderland fan.
We’re developing a winning habit, a thoroughly entertaining style of play, and an impressively resilient mindset, and it’s due in no small part to the boss… and perhaps one or two Jaffa Cakes, as well!