During his post-match interview following Sunday’s thrilling victory over West Bromwich Albion, Tony Mowbray stuck doggedly to the script that he’s used for the majority of his time in charge.
Asked about our playoff chances in the wake of another exceptional away victory, he played it with a straight bat and an equally straight face: ‘We didn’t expect to be in this position’, ‘the players have done incredibly well’, ‘there are still lots of teams in the mix’, and so on.
It was a predictable response from the notoriously unflinching Mowbray, who clearly has little time for intrepid Sky Sports reporters unless they bribe him with Revels, but it was also further proof of the mindset that’s currently propelling the Lads towards what would be the remarkable achievement of finishing in the playoffs as a newly-promoted team.
Despite giving little away and refusing to get too giddy after seeing his side come from behind to see off the Baggies, there’s no doubt that Mowbray believes implicitly in this group of players and what they’re capable of achieving.
This has been clear to see all season, as he’s stuck by them through ups and downs in form, the poor results and the frustrating setbacks, and has been rewarded with the possibility of a tilt at the playoffs.
When he took the job, he would’ve done so in the knowledge that he’d be overseeing the development of a young, raw and exciting squad, and that patience and understanding would be required from everyone, coaches and fans alike, if they were to flourish.
On a recent ITV Tyne Tees news report, Simon O’Rourke made reference to the fatherly approach that Mowbray has adopted, something that’s allowed the likes of Dan Neil (not really favoured by Alex Neil during last season’s playoff push, you may recall) Jack Clarke, Pierre Ekwah and Trai Hume to evolve from promising young talents to genuinely exciting Championship-level footballers.
What the boss is doing by contextualising our current position is ensuring that the players don’t feel the crushing burden of expectation that could cause them to stop doing what they’ve done so well all season.
It’s got absolutely nothing to do with talking down our status as a club, breeding an inferiority complex, or anything else conspiratorial. The last thing we want to see is the likes of Amad and Clarke suddenly freeze and start playing overly cautiously, because it won’t serve them or the team well at all.
There’s more excitement around this group of players that I can recall around a Sunderland side for many years, so are we at the stage where there’s so little to complain about on the footballing side that we’re appropriating and twisting Mowbray’s words in order to suit an agenda?
The idea that there are demands from the boardroom to deliberately tank in order to avoid the playoffs strikes me as laughable, and Mowbray’s observation about being ‘a year ahead of schedule’ was perfectly valid as well.
Last summer, as we set about constructing a team that could hopefully compete and secure our position in the league, did anyone envision that we’d be in this position with two games left?
Yes, there’s a sliding scale of expectations, but you have to consider all factors and in the cold light of day, everyone deserves immense credit for their efforts. OK, we can talk about the ‘what ifs?’ and the missed opportunities but in general? It’s been an exceptional campaign, and a memorable one as well.
What we’re seeing at the moment is the ingredient that’s key to any level of success: a coach and his squad in total harmony, fighting for each other and united around a common belief that great things can be achieved.
Indeed, if you saw the video of Cirkin and Luke O’Nien entering the dressing room to applause and cheering from their teammates on Sunday, the proof is compelling.
Mowbray has done a fine job since his arrival, and he’s conducted himself impeccably as the season has unfolded and we’ve taken gradual steps forward as a club.
Even if we were to fall short of the playoffs, the man should be praised rather than castigated for what he’s done for Sunderland and the way he’s moulded this squad into an immensely impressive and exciting Championship outfit.