Well, that was a relief, wasn’t it? Three points, a pretty good performance, and the world of Sunderland AFC looks an awful lot better.
The week leading up to Saturday’s game was miserable, really.
Yes, we got beat off Hull and yes, it was a crap performance, but the whole Michael Beale issue seems to have knocked a vocal majority of people off kilter, to the extent that everything he says is pounced upon, dissected and shouted about negatively – and it really added unnecessary pressure to our game against Stoke.
I might be in the minority here, but I just don’t get the extent of the negativity about Beale at all.
Was he my first choice as head coach? Absolutely not, and up until Saturday, I hadn’t seen much reason to get excited about him being in charge. But that doesn’t explain the toxicity that’s emerged around him.
Is it a ‘Rangers versus Celtic’ thing? I pay little attention to Scottish football, so that has no bearing for me, but maybe it does for others.
Is it because he’s a Southerner? Given our history with Charlie Hurley, Kevin Ball, Kevin Phillips and Jermain Defoe to name but a few, that’s highly unlikely. His record as a head coach? We’ve hired people with far worse track records before.
But, whatever the true source, that negativity is real, to the extent that we saw a bizarre coordinated attack by the local news outlets on Friday.
‘READ MICHAEL BEALE’S EXPLOSIVE COMMENTS ABOUT SUNDERLAND FANS!’
Piss off. They were about as explosive as one of Pierre Ekwah’s headers, but what’s behind that sort of sensationalism? Probably clicks, to be perfectly honest, but it doesn’t do anyone any favours unless your performance review is positively impacted.
After some of the horrendous abuse Beale has suffered online (the pictures of him with a noose around his neck and comments about his appearance were absolutely pathetic), he came out fighting during the week, and who can blame him?
All of the negativity might’ve had a different effect than what certain factions wanted. For me, it’s made me really get behind him. I feel sorry for the fella, and I desperately want him to succeed now. Thankfully, Saturday’s game seemed to show that the players are behind him, too.
We turned in a pretty good performance all told. Some tactical tweaks and changes in patterns of play were evident and paid dividends. That’s exactly what we want to see, isn’t it? A head coach having a positive tactical impact on our performances, and let’s hope this is just the beginning. The performance wasn’t perfect, of course not. And Stoke had their chances. But it’s probably one of the best 3-4 performances we’ve put in since that Southampton game all those months ago, and certainly the best we’ve played under Beale.
Of course, it could all still go tits up and history suggests it will sooner rather than later, given that the average tenure of a manager here is a year or so, but we certainly go into the Middlesbrough game on Sunday galvanised.
A point or three and a decent performance there will give Beale a bit more breathing space. You can tell he’s determined to prove people wrong... and Sunderland supporters love an underdog.
Pritch’s time at Sunderland comes to a sour end
The lead-up to the game on Saturday was interrupted by a club statement explaining that on Friday morning, Alex Pritchard had ‘informed the club that he was no longer available for selection and subsequently withdrew from today’s match day squad’ and that the midfielder also ‘expressed his desire to leave Sunderland AFC with immediate effect.’
It’s a disappointing end to what’s been a pretty successful spell on Wearside for Pritchard, and as good as he’s been for us, we’ve been good for him too.
He was something of a footballing pariah after his spell at Huddersfield, but he’s shown himself to be a leader on the pitch for us since he arrived and also capable of a moment of magic here and there. All up, he’s done well here, and he’ll get a far better contract now than he would’ve done three years ago.
However, he’s not been a first-team regular for us since the 2021/2022 League One season. He started about half of our league games last season and only nine during this campaign, but as we saw against Preston, he’s capable of pulling a goal out of nothing.
But, over the past few weeks, it’s been clear he’s not been happy, as on the field he’s been arguing with teammates and Beale, and something’s obviously been up.
The fact it was made public that we’d made him a contract offer was probably to preempt any criticism of his departure, and while the club has predictably faced criticism for releasing the statement when they did, it’s the way of managing ‘crisis communications’: get in front, get in first.
Yes, ideally, you could say nothing and then let it break today. But if they hadn’t said anything and rumours had emerged before or during the game, it would’ve looked far, far worse – and the same people criticising the timing of the statement would have been critical of the club not saying something about it.
Although Pritchard’s done a good job on the field, downing tools simply isn’t on for me – whatever’s gone on behind the scenes. Of course, we only know one side of the story at present, and I’m sure the other side will emerge soon, but refusing to play always sits really poorly with me.
From his perspective, I can understand it. He wouldn’t want an injury to jeopardise his last big contract, which is fair enough. But there are better ways of going about it.
It’s a shame that this will tarnish his time here, as he’s been a good player for us.
Deadline day looms – what can we expect?
I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that we need a left back, a centre forward and a defensive central midfielder, and in that order of priority before the window ends.
However, will we get them? Probably not. That’s not me being pessimistic, but just realistic based on our transfer windows so far.
We’ve shown that we won’t chase short-term fixes (we didn’t sign another striker last season after Ross Stewart’s injury), and aren’t afraid to make long-term calls (remember people being up in arms about Tom Flanagan being allowed to leave two years ago?), so if we need to, I’m sure we’ll manage fine.
However, it would be nice to see a couple of new arrivals.
I think we need them and if we can get on a bit of a roll after Saturday’s win, we can start thinking again about clinching a playoff spot. I suspect two of them are already taken, which means we’re probably one of ten or so clubs competing for the final two spots.
As always with Sunderland, it’s going to be another week that produces plenty of talking points!