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Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final

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Sunderland’s Stadium of Light Bosses, Part Six: Alex Neil, Tony Mowbray, and a new dawn on Wearside

It’s been a busy yet exciting couple of years at Sunderland, with the last two men at the helm playing a huge part!

Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Alex Neil (2022)

He arrived, he toughened us up, he got us promoted and off to an encouraging start in the Championship...and then he was gone.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

That’s Alex Neil’s Sunderland spell in a single sentence, a whirlwind six months that saw us finally escape the backwaters of League One (ending our atrocious record in Wembley playoff finals along the way) and reclaim our place in the second tier.

At the national stadium that day, Neil set a new world record for the fastest switch from a formal suit into a tracksuit, and the players delivered on the hallowed turf against Wycombe in a game that, with hindsight, we were never going to lose.

For that, the former Norwich and current Stoke City boss deserves the undying gratitude of our fans, but his brief spell in charge was about far more than one glorious day under the arch.

The dilemma when judging Neil’s Sunderland reign is this: is it possible to respect the man’s achievements whilst simultaneously flagging up the shabby way he left the club? The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and it should be perfectly possible to respect what he did for us whilst feeling miffed about the way it ended.

When he arrived, after an exhaustive and borderline farcical two-week search during which we lost two games and precious ground in the automatic promotion race, Neil took over a talented squad that was simply lacking in form and confidence, with many of its young players visibly flagging after being overplayed by Lee Johnson.

Sunderland v Crewe Alexandra - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Slowly but surely, he began to make his mark, shoring up our defence and injecting some much-needed bite into the team. Early results were slightly patchy, but things gradually started to improve and we began to make steady progress once again.

The football we played under Neil was seldom aesthetically beautiful, but it was immensely effective and it set us up for a playoff run by giving the players the belief that no opponent should be feared and that history didn’t matter.

With Nathan Broadhead’s goals proving crucial and a far more resilient Bailey Wright and Danny Batth-inspired defence helping to keep things solid, the flaws that had held us back under Johnson were slowly being repaired.

An abrasive and edgy personality, Neil also greeted the news of Jermain Defoe’s retirement with casual disdain, opining that he only wanted players in his squad who wanted to play for Sunderland, and he often gave short shrift to journalists in press conferences, which generally went down well with the fans.

An impressive unbeaten run towards the end of 2021/2022 ensured that a place in the top six was secured, and the two games against Sheffield Wednesday, with the first leg set against the iconic ‘Til The End’ backdrop have gone down in club folklore.

From Ross Stewart’s opening goal to Patrick Roberts’ winner at Hillsborough with Neil punching the air with delight in the aftermath, the double header against the Owls was the perfect pretext for our Wembley trip, and this time, it just felt different.

With the entire population of Wearside seemingly on hand, we saw off Gareth Ainsworth’s Wycombe (who’d denied us a priceless victory at Adams Park earlier in the season) as goals from Elliot Embleton and Stewart brought an end to our four-year spell in League One.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One - Play Off - Final - Wembley Stadium Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images

As the summer unfolded and we prepared for our return to the Championship by making promising signings such as Dan Ballard and Aji Alese, as well as securing the services of Ellis Simms on loan from Everton, it felt as though we were onto a winner with Neil, and there was little indication that all wasn’t well behind the scenes.

Surely Neil understood exactly what he was signing up for, and what kind of structure he’d be working within when he agreed to become our head coach. If he didn’t, perhaps he was naive, and if he did and was never fully comfortable with it, why did he sign the contract?

An encouraging start to the season, which included solid away wins over Bristol City and Stoke, was just what we needed, but sadly, an unwelcome twist lay ahead.

The manner of Neil’s eventual departure, which included taking in Stoke’s game with Blackburn whilst technically still on our payroll, was messy, ungracious and badly-timed, with the players due to play Norwich as the rumour mill went into overdrive.

Exiting the Stadium of Light under the guise of supposedly ‘not being backed in the transfer market’, and amid rumours of contractual disagreements, he headed for the Potteries and a bet365-funded salary, as Tony Mowbray picked up the reigns and proceeded to build on what Neil had started during the early weeks of 2022/2023.

His departure didn’t go down well with the supporters who’d taken him to their hearts, and defiant chants of ‘F**k Alex Neil’ could be heard from the South Stand as we took on the Canaries.

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

When Neil returned to the Stadium of Light in March, overseeing a comprehensive 1-5 victory for Stoke in what was undoubtedly our worst game of the season, you did wonder if there were mixed emotions for the Scot, or whether he was secretly delighted to get one over on his former employer.

In any case, the end result mattered little, as we eventually finished sixth and Stoke stuttered to a fairly underwhelming mid-table finish, as our policy of showing faith in youth, supposedly greeted with scepticism by Neil, began to pay dividends.

Make no mistake: Neil did an excellent job as Sunderland’s head coach, even if, with the benefit of hindsight, he came across as a hired gun who had little real affinity for the club and even less interest in guiding and overseeing the development of young players.

His impact in a relatively short space of time was notable, and even if he showed a lack of respect when he left, he’ll always be remembered as the man who succeeded where others had failed, in finally steering us out of the third tier and restoring a great deal of pride to the club after some truly torrid years.

Tony Mowbray (2022-)

There’s a curious symmetry in the fact that the current occupant of the Stadium of Light dugout isn’t too dissimilar in character, man management skills and footballing philosophy to the first man who held the position.

Sunderland v Rotherham United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If Peter Reid was the archetypal streetwise Scouser, a boss who understood the passion of the Sunderland fans and built a team that embodied and reflected it, Tony Mowbray is cut from a similar cloth.

Yes, there’s been more emphasis placed on youth development under Mowbray and we were definitely more rugged, ruthless and savvy under Reid, but the comparison is fair and is also testament to the process that’s now in place when it comes to replacing a head coach.

When the former Middlesbrough captain and ex-West Bromwich Albion and Celtic boss arrived on Wearside last year, did you envision that he’d oversee some of the most entertaining football played by a Sunderland team in many years, and that he’d win a place in the affections of the fans through his decency, his humour and his affable manner?

From being lambasted as a managerial relic and an uninspiring choice (not that his predecessor exactly oozed charisma) Mowbray is currently enjoying a level of sustained popularity not afforded to a Sunderland boss for some time, and despite one or two bumps in the road, it’s fully deserved.

San Antonio v Sunderland Pe-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Following Alex Neil’s abrupt departure, it was obvious that his replacement had two key briefs to fulfil: overseeing the development of a young and somewhat inexperienced squad, and ensuring that Championship stability was achieved at the bare minimum.

On both counts, Mowbray has succeeded so far and along with the recruitment team, who’ve done some sterling work in recent times, he’s steered the club onto a new path.

While results during the early weeks of his tenure weren’t spectacular and we experienced some frustrating setbacks along the way, most notably against Burnley, there were also some moments of real excitement, not least in the shape of Jack Clarke’s sensational goal against Reading, which hinted at just how expansive we could be.

Under Mowbray, many of our young players have thrived, with his fatherly approach and unswerving backing for the likes of Clarke, Dan Neil, Pierre Ekwah and Trai Hume bringing huge rewards. He also phased the raw but talented Amad into the team, and the Manchester United loanee played an enormous role last season, both in terms of goals and his all-round play.

Another noticeable development in recent times has been the strength of our team spirit, which has improved immeasurably. Based on social media postings from our American trip, this is a squad who are developing a real camaraderie, and the boss’s role in that has been significant.

Mowbray often speaks about the importance of ‘values’ and ensuring that the players take to the field with the right attitude. He’s given them a license to play and to express themselves, but only on the basis that they work hard for each other and don’t shirk the less glamorous side of the game.

A downturn in results at the turn of the year represented Mowbray’s first real rocky patch as Sunderland boss, with our form suffering and questions being asked, but an excellent away victory over Norwich was the trigger for a run that eventually saw us secure a top six place, with crucial victories over the likes of Cardiff, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

Another factor that needs to be considered when discussing Mowbray’s time in charge so far is the injury crisis that affected us so badly at various points during the campaign.

He was robbed of an out-and-out centre forward for much of the campaign due to injuries suffered by Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms (who was eventually recalled by Everton at the turn of the year), and towards the end of the season, a slew of injuries forced him to field a makeshift defence as the likes of Danny Batth and Dan Ballard fell by the wayside.

Although we ultimately fell short in the playoffs against a confrontational Luton side, Mowbray has (rightly) retained his position and is currently planning for 2023/2024. With four new signings on board and doubtless more to follow, there’s every chance that the coming campaign could be as exciting and memorable as the one that preceded it.

Under Mowbray, we’ve definitely sacrificed some of the bite and toughness that often defined us under Alex Neil, but we’ve also become more progressive, expansive, and much more entertaining to watch, albeit with some definite areas for improvement.

A fairly underwhelming home record, with plenty of points dropped from positions of strength, is something that needs to be addressed, but as the man himself often said last season, we’ve got the nucleus of a very exciting squad and the potential is enormous.

In the twenty six years since we moved to our current home, it feels appropriate that the Stadium of Light era has been bookended by two bosses of similar status. One gave us plenty of wonderful memories, the current gaffer in charge has done the same, and has resorted Sunderland to a position of real strength for the seasons to come.


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