When Tony Mowbray was announced as the successor to Alex Neil, I confess that I was not overwhelmed. My opinion very quickly changed as he started to work with the young squad at his disposal. He took naturally to the fatherly/grandfatherly role that was sorely needed with the burgeoning but inexperienced array of talent that Kristjaan Speakman had assembled.
To his credit, Mowbray persisted with youngsters, particularly when they made the mistakes that should only be expected from players of that age. Looking back at Pierre Ekwah’s rash tackle that allowed Hull to claim a penalty, it was Mowbray’s faith that kept him in the team, and eventually allowed him to begin to blossom.
If you look at the side that Michael Beale inherited, so many of them are young players who either broke through or cemented their place under Mowbray - Trai Hume, Niall Huggins, Jobe, Chris Rigg. Dan Neil should be the first name on any current SAFC team sheet, but he wasn’t under Neil - it was under Mowbray that he firmly established himself in the team.
But for each of those, there were also young players who struggled under Mowbray - the enigma that is Abdoullah Ba, and Hemir were the two most obvious examples. Week after week, Mowbray preferred an unproductive Patrick Roberts to the unpredictable Ba. Hemir was the subject of what was, for me, the cardinal sin for a coach - the public denigration of a young player.
As Mowbray’s tenure came towards an end, there were signs that he was struggling with the task of continuing to develop such a young squad. In comments to the media, he touched on similar issues around experience that had led to the departure of his predecessor.
As Mowbray departed, the focus moved to who would succeed him. The priority seemed to be on the tactical approach a new coach would bring. The fact that they would inherit such a young squad was pretty much glossed over, as expectations around who would replace Mowbray grew.
When the appointment of Michael Beale was announced, it felt such an anticlimax - this was anything but the exciting foreign tactical innovator that we, as supporters, craved.
But, in the last couple of weeks, there have been signs that Michael Beale may just be the right fit to help a squad packed with potential to reach the next level in their development.
Although yet to be fully utilised, Hemir was not sent out on loan, and has been restored to the match day squad. Abdoullah Ba has been given the responsibility of starting games. And the unbelievable has happened - strikers have scored goals.
On Saturday, with the game still very much in the balance, Beale turned to a central partnership of 18 year old Jobe and 16 year old Chris Rigg, in front of veteran 21 year old Dan Neil, to see the game out.
He has also trusted 20 year old new signing Leo Hjelde to immediately fill the void on the left side of defence that injuries to Dennis Cirkin, Niall Huggins and Aji Alese created.
But, seemingly, he has also removed the tactical shackles that Mowbray had placed on his young charges - players such as Trai Hume have the freedom to play a long ball when the opportunities arise. Beale has retained much of the emphasis on controlling possession that had become such a defining feature of the later games of Mowbray’s reign - but opponents can no longer rely on Sunderland simply playing in front of them.
Together with the selection of Nazariy Rusyn, who constantly stretches defences, Beale’s Sunderland are posing different challenges. Perhaps the strongest indicator of how the team has developed under Beale in the last few games has been the lack of impact that the absence of Alex Pritchard has had.
When Lee Johnson’s reign came to an ignominious end at Bolton, Alex Neil proved to be the right appointment to drive us out of League One.
When Alex Neil left us to enjoy ‘future success’ at Stoke, Tony Mowbray proved to be the right appointment to establish us securely as a Championship side, and undoubtedly exceeded expectations.
As Mowbray struggled with the transition from counter attacking surprise package to established possession-dominant play off challengers, perhaps Michael Beale is starting to show that he may be the coach who will enable this vibrant young squad to deliver on their potential.