When Alex Pritchard made way for Nazariy Rusyn towards the end of Saturday’s frustrating loss at the hands of Ipswich (far too late for the Ukrainian to make a meaningful impact, as it turned out) a Sky Sports camera operator tracked the playmaker off the pitch and stayed with him as he headed towards the Sunderland technical area.
As the visibly agitated former Huddersfield and Norwich man walked off, Michael Beale attempted to embrace his player, but Pritchard was having none of it.
What appeared to be sharp words and hand gestures were exchanged, and that was that. It was an image that summed up the whole evening as things went south for the Lads yet again, and it would be foolish to dismiss it out of hand.
The loss to Ipswich was about as annoying a defeat as we’ve endured all season.
We took the lead through a Jack Clarke screamer before losing our way during the second half and eventually conceding the winning goal via a header scored by the diminutive Conor Chaplin. Beale’s decision to drop Rusyn rendered us toothless for the majority of the game, and bringing off Abdoullah Ba for Adil Aouchiche was questionable, too.
It was another setback for everyone, and particularly for the former QPR and Rangers boss, whose spell in charge of Sunderland has yet to gain any real momentum.
Prior to Beale officially being unveiled as Tony Mowbray’s successor at the Stadium of Light, I wrote an article in which I expressed severe misgivings about the appointment and the rationale behind it.
Thus far, and even though we’re only a matter of weeks into his tenure, it’s a cold, hard truth that there’s little evidence to suggest that Beale is either a genuine upgrade on Mowbray or that his personality is well-suited to the pressure cooker environment at Sunderland.
Is it premature? Does he deserve time to demonstrate exactly what he can do and to possibly win everyone round? The answer to the latter is an emphatic ‘yes’, but to the former? I don’t think so. Patience isn’t in great supply at the moment, and that’s just the way it is.
The Beale/Sunderland collaboration feels like a loveless marriage; an arrangement borne out of convenience rather than a determination to hire a head coach who could genuinely take us to the next level. Overall, performances since he took over have been just about OK, whereas results have been slightly north of ‘good’ as well.
On the other hand, there are a multitude of flashing warning signs that this appointment and the entire process that led to it was flawed.
Yes, he arrived in the middle of a packed run of games, but he’ll now have more time to work with the players on the training ground, and we simply need to see more evidence of progress during the coming weeks.
Beale lost his first game against Coventry City by a crushing scoreline and although the wins against Hull and Preston were deserved, flat performances against Newcastle and Rotherham, coupled with Saturday’s stumble against a fairly humdrum if well-organised Ipswich have gone down badly.
To counter the argument that I’m rushing to write Beale off before he’s even had a chance to unpack his suitcase, you have to consider the circumstances surrounding his arrival.
After a process that saw a multitude of names linked with the position, Beale’s appointment was greeted with great enthusiasm by Kristjaan Speakman, with his supposed coaching pedigree and reputation for nurturing young talent the selling points that allegedly convinced Sunderland to hire him.
With such a ringing endorsement - not to mention Speakman’s ‘obsession with progression’ soundbite - comes expectation, scrutiny and pressure, and a none-too-subtle effort to sell Beale to the supporters via a series of social media posts has been difficult to overlook as well.
Whether you believe that Mowbray’s exit was justified or not, his popularity remained, and continues to remain very high among the supporter base. He connected with the supporters and embraced life on Wearside, whereas Beale has not.
Thus far, there’s been little evidence of the supposed tactical brilliance that supposedly set him aside from the other candidates for the position, and his management of certain players has been difficult to fathom as well, with his public criticism of Aouchiche a major concern on Saturday night.
Regardless of how much emphasis you place on it, personality matters when considering a person’s suitability to coach Sunderland AFC.
Peter Reid was a perfect fit for the times in 1995; Roy Keane grabbed the club by its lapels and lifted everyone’s spirits in 2006, and Mowbray, through his humility and footballing ethos, certainly won a place in the affections of the fans when he arrived in 2022.
These men had self belief, the stature and standing in the game to earn the trust of the players, and the ability to connect with the supporters.
Beale, in contrast, simply doesn’t appear to be comfortable with the responsibility of leading a club of this size. He may be a capable and sharp-thinking lieutenant as part of a wider coaching setup, but as a leader in his own right? I’m not convinced.
His interviews are laced with timidity, rambling replies, evasiveness and nervousness, and his demeanour on the touchline doesn’t appear to be that of a man who’s suited to such a high-profile job. In contrast to the ebullient and affable Mowbray, Beale looks ill at ease in the role and as history proves, that’s a difficult hurdle to overcome.
After a challenging seven days for the club, Friday’s game with Hull now takes on even more significance.
With Leeds United and Southampton maintaining a comfortable buffer in the race for the playoffs, there’s going to be one hell of a battle for fifth and six places during the remaining games of the season.
I may be proven wrong about Beale, and for the good of the team’s progression and prospects for the remainder of the season, I sincerely hope I am.
However, it’s difficult to see this partnership between club and head coach ending successfully, and after striking gold with the appointments of Alex Neil and Mowbray, a significant upturn in performances and results is needed to prove that Speakman and company haven’t got it wrong at a crucial time for Sunderland.