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Preston North End v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship

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Any tension behind the scenes at Sunderland will lead to only one outcome

“Much has been made of the options at Tony Mowbray’s disposal, but a battle of wills between the head coach and his sporting director will only end one way,” writes Phil West.

Photo by Dave Howarth - CameraSport via Getty Images

When Sunderland’s team sheet for Saturday’s fixture at Preston was published at 2:00pm, the inclusion of Bradley Dack over Hemir as a ‘false nine’ certainly caused some interesting discussions on social media.

Was it a case of Tony Mowbray simply taking Hemir out of the firing line after a fairly low-key competitive debut against Ipswich, or was the head coach possibly trying to send a message to Kristjaan Speakman along the lines of, ‘I’ve got one fit striker and he's clearly not ready, so I’ve got no alternative but to try something else’?

In any event, the outcome wasn’t what anyone would’ve wanted.

Dack showed some decent touches but is clearly lacking fitness and isn’t suited to that particular role, and when the Portuguese striker finally entered the fray, it was very much a continuation of his Ipswich travails.

There was a lack of incisive movement and hesitancy in key moments, not least when Patrick Roberts reached the byline after a superb run, only for his cut back to find nothing but fresh air.

The whole thing was a mess, and after the game, the discussion continued in a predictable vein.

Mowbray had been ‘hung out to dry by Speakman’, the model’s flaws had been brutally exposed once again and the former Birmingham man needed to pull his finger out and make something happen sharpish. Flexibility, not rigidity, was the order of the day.

It was a familiar refrain and although some new signings would give everyone a lift ahead of the next game against Rotherham, it’s difficult to envision a 2006-style flurry of arrivals during the coming days and if that’s the case, what happens on Saturday will be very interesting.

Suffice it to say, the consensus seems to be that the good ship Sunderland AFC isn’t exactly a harmonious place at the moment.

Preston North End v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Three losses have sent jitters through the fan base and Mowbray’s post-match interviews have been scrutinised for any thinly-veiled signs of discontent at what he’s currently working with.

The Amad-shaped hole in the squad could scarcely be more glaring, and with several players yet to really hit their straps, it’s little wonder that Mowbray isn’t turning cartwheels right now. In both league games, we’ve allowed individual errors and a lack of ruthlessness to torpedo our chances, and that must be incredibly frustrating for all concerned.

However, recruitment is the main theme and it’s here where things become murky.

Indeed, it’s interesting to see Mowbray, so often dismissed as a dull and uninspiring choice as head coach, now being defended to the hilt in some quarters over a man who’s much younger and much less experienced.

His post-match meeting with Speakman last Tuesday, ostensibly to discuss potential transfers, was portrayed as a showdown, but you’d hope the reality is nowhere near as tension-filled. The good of the club has to come first- at all times- and it’s important that everyone remembers that.

Objectively, there’s absolutely no way of sugar-coating this: in any potential battle or wills or standoff between our head coach and his sporting director, there will only be one ‘victor’, and it will emphatically not be Mowbray.

Sunderland v Crewe Alexandra - Carabao Cup First Round Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

If this regime was willing to allow a promotion-winning head coach to leave for a Championship rival after six months, you suspect they’d have no qualms about parting ways with Mowbray, even after his exploits in 2022/2023 and the level of popularity he enjoys among our fans.

The very basis of this model is that the head coach is interchangeable, if not expendable.

If he leaves, another arrives with little fuss and minimal disruption, and the whole thing keeps rolling on, or at least that’s the idea. It worked when Lee Johnson was replaced by Alex Neil, and it certainly worked when Neil left for Stoke, so on that basis, you could say it’s being vindicated.

To say that Mowbray, seventeen years older than Neil and a veteran of nine hundred games in management, didn’t know what he was signing up for seems naive, and it’s important to note that he’s never publicly thrown his players or anyone else at the club under the bus.

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

Personally, I still feel that he’s the ideal fit for us, even after the summer rumours of his potential departure, and hopefully his references to deals being worked on will yield results soon.

It’s been a poor start and not what any of us would’ve wanted or maybe expected, but this is still the same group of players (problematically, some might say) who did so well to give us a playoff run last season.

If we can approach the Rotherham game with more edge, hopefully through starts for Danny Batth and Alex Pritchard, and less emphasis on attractive football and secure the win that would give everyone something to cheer, the waters will certainly be calmer.

Thirty miles down the A19, there’s a similar sense of unease after Middlesbrough’s poor start, but the season is young and much can change quickly. Let’s hope that Saturday is the first step on that road.


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