The managerial changes have been as regular as ever in the Championship during 2022-23, but for once the switch at Sunderland was prompted not by bad results but by another club poaching our head coach.
Since the departure of Alex Neil though, Tony Mowbray has stepped in seamlessly and used all his Championship experience to overcome a series on injuries and steer a newly promoted squad not only to safety, which is extremely rare in itself at this level, but to also have it within touching distance of making the playoffs.
It is an impressive job, but one curious quirk has emerged. Defeats on the road at former clubs Middlesbrough, Blackburn Rovers and Coventry City have undermined an otherwise superb away record, and with the Sky cameras once again zooming in on the gaffer the streak needed to end at The Hawthorns to keep a promising unbeaten run of late going.
West Bromwich Albion have also made a change in the dugout this season once it became clear that their own hopes were fading, and whilst Carlos Corberan brought about an upturn in form initially, recent results have started to level out slightly. Scores elsewhere on Saturday opened the door for both the Baggies and the Black Cats however, and Mowbray was fairly bold with his selections perhaps as a consequence.
It would appear as if likes what Abdoullah Ba and Pierre Ekwah can offer away from the Stadium of Light and in the first half the side worked hard to keep the pressure off what was a makeshift defence. It would be easy to look at the final score and forget that three of the back four were playing out of their natural positions, and even more so when you consider how solid they looked when they were tested.
When West Brom did score it was from a highly dubious penalty award, and had things panned out differently that decision may have come under more scrutiny. It was a frustrating way to end a run of three consecutive clean sheets away from Wearside and in no way reflected how the game had gone thus far – Sunderland bossed things up to that point despite a series of fouls from the home team and their clear targeting of Joe Gelhardt.
‘Joffy’ is improving week on week and it was pleasing to see him stand up to the punishment and continue to put an important shift in. I was worried mind how the Lads would react to conceding at such a delicate time but they too responded well – it was a bit manic in the first few minutes after the break and some wonderful blocks were needed to keep Sunderland in it, but the leveller was a peach; captain Lynden Gooch did brilliantly and Denis Cirkin powered in a great header. How he got into the position I’m unsure, but I don’t think anybody was complaining.
After getting back to 1-1 it felt as if things might bubble over, but this squad rarely shirk a challenge and are quite fearless in their approach. It seemed a bit stretched at times, but they showed good fitness levels and strong determination as the minutes wore on, and whilst the hosts had their moments Sunderland always looked capable of springing a counterattack. When Cirkin got the winner, it was thanks to some terrific touches in tight areas and another fantastic team move, and I think most neutrals would agree that it was deserved.
Mowbray should be credited for his plotting and subsequent positive changes. He’ll be pleased no doubt to get a vital win over a former club, but one of the things I like most about him is his unassuming nature; when results are going well he will praise his players to the hilt, and on showings like this they deserve every plaudit going. It would have been easy to make excuses no doubt, but instead of crying about the absence of Danny Batth for instance or going behind to a dodgy spot kick, this lot just put the work in and try to produce good football as ever.
The news that Luke O’Nien and his wife have now had their second child was great to hear afterwards, but it reminds us that these boys have their own stuff going on in the background and for them to continually remain focused, ready and able is highly admirable. Given the circumstances there is a strong argument that this was the best performance of the season so far, but the greatest thing about it is that we are clearly not done yet.
My Man of the Match: Dennis Cirkin. Bit of an obvious one, but on a day where everybody played their part the goals nudge him ahead. Contributed plenty in other areas as well though and could be an important player in the final weeks given our defensive absences.