We’ve arrived at a point in the season which Tony Mowbray has hinted through the season we would reach. He’s said on a few occasions there will come a point when ‘you are talking to me on the back of three defeats and the narrative will be a very different one’.
It is and it isn’t.
The main thread of the narrative since January has been the lack of a striker - the failure to bring in a striker to replace the injured Ross Stewart and the recalled Ellis Simms.
The loss of those two, and Stewart so close to the closing of the transfer window, has clearly condemned Sunderland to a run-in that will be overshadowed by finger-pointing and recrimination.
I understand it wasn’t for lack of trying to find a replacement but through a lack of finance allowing Sunderland to compete with clubs who have deeper pockets and are more attractive as a consequence.
Therein lies the rub. Is the model the football club pushing so religiously strong enough to overcome these scenarios? To build sustainably is commendable but when it is confronted with a worst-case scenario, which arguably the loss of Stewart and Simms is, it appears to be flawed. What Sunderland don’t have yet in this plan is a young up-and-coming striker who can step up to the first team.
Harry Gardiner is the latest young player who is being talked about in that vein. Max Thompson’s injury has allowed Gardiner to blossom in the under-21’s up front, but one fears when Tony Mowbray is asked about giving the 19 year old a chance we will hear much the same we heard when Mowbray was asked about elevating Thompson earlier in the season.
Interesting in the light of a 15 year old in Chris Rigg playing in the FA Cup one could be forgiven for wondering why it’s not worth a gamble.
I may be speaking out of turn and find out Gardiner will be in the squad to face Norwich City, but the bottom line is Joffy Gelhardt is not a number 9 and something needs to change if Sunderland are going to negate their apparent predictability.
The inclusion of the likes of Isaac Lihadji, Jewison Bennette and Pierre Ekwah in the under 21’s team that beat Stoke suggests they will be involved at Carrow Road in some capacity, and with Lynden Gooch on the cusp of a return and Luke O’Nien being urged to start, there are surely options.
The Stoke defeat was a lightning bolt. A jolt. A wake up call. Tony Mowbray says there is no plan B. He says to stick with plan A is the right thing to do. He is an experienced coach and perhaps he is right. but the warning signs were apparent at Rotherham and starker at Coventry where one of the shining lights, Amad Diallo, clearly looked out of sorts.
Now the risk assessment is whether to accommodate change and risk losing heavily at a resurgent Norwich, or keep things as they are and similarly risk a repeat of Stoke.
The pendulum for me swings in favour of the former. Surely the risk of including Bennette, Lihadji, Ekwah, for argument's sake, is worth taking on the grounds of let’s just see whether they are ready to step up to the challenge that faces the team in the next few months?
The safety net at the moment is Championship safety is all but assured. It would take a catastrophic chain of events for Sunderland to be sucked into a relegation battle.
The argument then for the ‘model’ is that surviving a first season on the return to the Championship would be deemed a success. Its next challenge will be holding onto the prime assets in the summer in the light of other Championship and Premier League clubs having deeper pockets with which to pick off the cream of Sunderland’s developing squad.
The question also has to be resolved on the evidence of this season whether the model needs tweaking to accommodate players over the age of 22 to lend the team more balance and experience.
There’s no question in my mind the football played at times this season has been breathtaking, and Sunderland are on the right road. However, the season has also illustrated the flaw of not having a specialist striker as cover and also to an extent, an experienced central midfielder following the injury to Corry Evans.
There will be a review of the season of course but the acid test is whether lessons are learned as a result and then actioned.
We are currently at the first pinch point in the season and at the moment it just feels a little like it is in limbo. Stick or twist? It’s not sure what to do.
Tony Mowbray now needs to be bold and take a risk.
Not to do so will send a signal of resignation that the season aim of consolidation has been achieved when there is still so much more to come this season from these players if they’re shown faith in their ability.