On August 26 2022, news began circulating that would rock Sunderland fans. Alex Neil, who has only been appointed in February and who had guided the club out of League One via a playoff win that would live long in the memories of supporters, was to leave the club.
Stoke City who had been beaten by the Black Cats just a week earlier and had sacked their manager as a result had approached Neil with talks already in an advanced stage. As the day wore on Sunderland confirmed that Neil had decided to leave to take over at the bet365 Stadium. However, it would be a blessing in disguise.
Tony Mowbray Replacing Alex Neil as Sunderland’s Head Coach a Blessing in Disguise
Sunderland released a statement via their official website safc.com shortly after Alex Neil decided to leave the club: “First and foremost, we want to thank Alex for his contribution to Sunderland AFC. The impact he made is clear and he played an integral role in our promotion last season. Despite signing revised terms earlier this month and receiving an offer to further improve his contract on Friday, Alex felt this was an opportunity that he wanted to pursue. We are extremely disappointed by his departure, but we ultimately respect his decision and we wish him well. The process to appoint a new Head Coach is underway and we will provide a further update to our supporters shortly.”
Tony Mowbray Appointed Sunderland’s Head Coach
Welcome to #SAFC, Tony Mowbray ✍️
The 58-year-old has signed a two-year contract on Wearside!
— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) August 30, 2022
Sunderland, after a promising start to life back in the Championship, were now left without a head coach. Neil was leaving under a cloud that few would forget; however, the club reacted quickly to appoint a replacement. The man they went for was former Middlesbrough, Celtic and Blackburn Rovers boss Tony Mowbray.
It was an appointment that was met with divided opinions on Wearside. However, even those opposed to his appointment will now be delighted and have a changed opinion of their head coach.
Performances and Results
Mowbray was appointed as Sunderland’s head coach not as a manager. This would give him more time to spend with the players and so far it is working. A 3-0 home win in his first game was followed by defeat at Middlesbrough; however, it was the injury to star striker Ross Stewart that was most concerning. The next game at Reading saw their only other striker Ellis Simms injured requiring Mowbray to call on all of his experience to change personnel and formation mid-game. It worked with the Black Cats winning 3-0 and scoring a goal-of-the-season contender in the process.
The loss of their strikers did not deter Mowbray or his team, they were showing signs that they were made of stern stuff. Results were inconsistent to begin with but performances were picking up and fans could see what type of game Mowbray wanted his team to play. High-intensity, pressing and attacking football was how he wanted to play and how fans wanted to see their team play. With players such as Patrick Roberts, Amad Diallo and Jack Clarke who have the ability to score and create Sunderland are always a danger in the opposition half.
As the games passed, performances were bringing the results they deserved. They kept pace with those in the playoff places and prior to their next game against Bristol City, they are 5th in the table. They also took Premier League high-flyers Fulham to a replay in the FA Cup, drawing with them away and then suffering a narrow 3-2 defeat at home despite an excellent performance. Mowbray and his young team have shown so far that they have what it takes to beat any other team in the Championship, even without a striker.
Coming up from League One via the playoffs, many expected the team to adapt but as long as they stayed in the Championship it would be considered a success. Sunderland under Mowbray have exceeded all expectations asked of them and whatever happens between now and the end of the season, players, staff and fans can look back and be proud of how well the club has done following several years in England’s third tier.
Should they continue to improve and with an average attendance of 38,000 only going to rise, Sunderland could see themselves back in the Premier League well ahead of schedule.
A Largely Young and Inexperienced Team but One With Talent
Calling Sunderland’s squad inexperienced would be an understatement. Many are playing either their first season at Championship level or their first season at senior level. They also have the lowest average age of any team in the league. However, despite their young average age, there is experience there.
Danny Batth, Alex Pritchard and Patrick Roberts have experience at the top level of football. 23-year-old Dan Ballard was signed from Arsenal and youngster Amad Diallo was signed by Manchester United for £25 million following his performances in the Champions League for Atalanta. 19-year-old Eduard Michut came from PSG where he regularly trained with the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.
Sunderland’s recruitment team have focused on signing young players who they can develop. 18-year-old Jewison Bennette arrived from Costa Rica while 20-year-old Issac Lihadji and 19-year-old Abdoullah Ba came to Wearside from France. They are also keen to develop players from the area too. Goalkeeper Anthony Patterson and midfielder Dan Neil have come through the academy and are now first-team regulars. 15-year-old Chris Rigg has also featured from the bench in the FA Cup.
These players and others all have a part to play in the short-term but with Mowbray able to develop them, they will become more of an asset as time goes by.
Making Players Feel Special
Tony Mowbray has spoken about the young quality he has at his disposal. He said: “How on earth Patrick Roberts was playing in League One, I’ll never know. This kid is a Premier League footballer, he was playing in League One.
“Amad Diallo, how on earth we got him on loan is amazing because he is like a magician. We’ve got some wonderful players.
“Jack Clarke cost Tottenham £10 million from Leeds United. We’ve got some really highly talented footballers and they just needed loving and telling how great they were and they are just blossoming into the players I know they are.
At the top end of the pitch, we can damage teams in this division.”
A Blessing in Disguise
With Alex Neil, Stoke City are currently 19th in the table and have a potential relegation fight upcoming. Sunderland on the other hand under the leadership of Tony Mowbray are currently playing some of the best football seen at the Stadium of Light in years and are fifth in the table with a real chance of claiming a playoff place come the end of the season.
Whatever happens, fans, players and staff can look back on their first season back in the Championship with pride.
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