THE final act of Tony Mowbray’s tenure at the Stadium of Light might have played out late last night, but in hindsight, the beginning of the end came at Luton in May.

In a small bar that had been hurriedly reorganised into a press room in the bowels of Kenilworth Road, while the home supporters celebrated in the corridors outside, Mowbray was asked to reflect on what might lie around the corner for both himself and Sunderland. His answer strongly suggested that the two might not necessarily be linked.

“I’ve enjoyed it, but who knows what my future holds,” said a glum-faced Mowbray at the time. “Do I want to be here next season? I do, yes. But let’s wait and see how it goes and what the summer brings. I don’t know what will happen next. Modern-day football clubs can do what they want. I’m pretty relaxed.”

A certain sense of disappointment was inevitable given the way in which Sunderland had fallen short in the play-off semi-finals, but this was much more than that. This was proof that Mowbray had lost faith, both with those above him and with the remit he had been asked to perform when he agreed to replace Alex Neil the previous August.

The loss of trust owed much to the reports that had emerged a few weeks earlier, linking Sunderland with Italian coach Francesco Farioli and suggesting owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and sporting director Kristjaan Speakman were actively considering a change of head coach.

The Northern Echo: Sunderland owner Kyril Louis-DreyfusSunderland owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus (Image: Ian Horrocks)

There was substance to the reports, and for all that the club hierarchy might have posited their manoeuvring as the necessary due diligence that is now required as part of astute progression planning, Mowbray felt damaged and undermined. From that point on, he was no longer willing to blindly defend the actions of those above him.

That might not have mattered had the various parts of Sunderland’s management structure been working perfectly in synch, but for all that Mowbray has long been a champion of promoting and developing young players, he is also a football realist who has spent long enough in the Championship to know what type of teams generally get promoted.

As he surveyed the wreckage of May’s play-off defeat to Luton, he saw a callow, young Sunderland team, undoubtedly talented, but also lacking the nous, experience and basic physical heft that would eventually carry the Hatters all the way to the Premier League.


He told those above him as much in a post-season debrief, yet his comments and suggestions fell on deaf ears. While Mowbray had long accepted he was a relatively peripheral figure when it came to the recruitment process at the Stadium of Light, he is nevertheless understood to have presented a list of potential targets to Speakman and the rest of the recruitment team at the start of this summer. The only player on that list to have been signed was Bradley Dack, and even then, only because the 29-year-old was a free agent, signing an initial one-year deal, whose purchase required a minimal financial investment.

For most of the summer, it felt as though Mowbray’s departure was probably inevitable, but a truce held into the current campaign, albeit that it was beginning to feel increasingly uneasy as autumn began to give way to winter. From the back end of last season, there was a sense of the Sunderland hierarchy waiting for an excuse to change their head coach, and last week’s dispiriting home defeat to Huddersfield, which made it two wins from eight games, pretty much delivered it. As a result, when Mowbray addressed the press after Saturday’s draw at Millwall, he almost certainly knew he was speaking as a condemned man.

“Listen, I’ve always been a development coach really, try and make the players better, try and make them grow, try and understand, and hopefully the results follow,” he said at The Den. “If they don’t, you lose your job, that’s fine.

“I hope the line between winning and developing can be found, of course, but it’s going to be a slightly longer journey than people might have hoped at this football club because of the inexperience of some of the footballers that we’ve got.”

And therein lies the crucial dilemma that Louis-Dreyfus and Speakman now have to address. Do they want their football club to be a developing ground for young, talented but raw and inexperienced players, who can be bought relatively cheaply, on wages that are significantly lower than those paid by almost every other side in the Championship’s current top 12, but who could potentially be sold at a significant profit further down the line? Or do they want to win promotion? Because as Mowbray eventually concluded, and as the evidence from countless Championship seasons attests, while it is not impossible to do both things at once, it is an exceptionally difficult task to achieve.

If talent development is Sunderland’s priority, and Mowbray’s comments effectively claiming he was being forced to play his young centre-forwards certainly suggest that is the case – “We have inexperienced strikers who aren’t really ready at this moment to play for our team, but they have to play and we are playing them” – then last night’s events make no sense. From Amad to Abdoullah Ba, Jack Clarke to Jobe Bellingham, Mowbray has proved his talent for nurturing and improving young players. If Louis-Dreyfus and Speakman want someone who knows how youth development works, they have just fired one of the best practitioners in the country.

The Northern Echo: Tony Mowbray passes on some instructions to Amad DialloTony Mowbray passes on some instructions to Amad Diallo (Image: Ian Horrocks)

If, however, they think this Sunderland side should be winning promotion, while it is easier to understand their decision-making process, perhaps they should be looking at themselves in the mirror rather than issuing management-speak thanks to the person they have just sacked.

Yes, Mowbray made mistakes. In the last few weeks, his over-reliance on his wingers, particularly Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts, has made Sunderland easy to predict and contain. Tactically, he was reluctant to try anything too different. All too often, his second-half rush to throw on three or four substitutes at the same time felt like an admission of defeat rather than a carefully thought-out plan to change things. His blind faith in Luke O’Nien, while to at least some extent forced on him by a lack of alternatives, was becoming a stick that frustrated fans could use to beat him with.

Fundamentally, though, I’d argue that he’s done a decent job to keep this Sunderland side within three points of the play-off places, particularly when none of his strikers have scored a goal this season. Some fans will argue that if he’d played differently, Nazariy Rusyn, Mason Burstow, Luis Hemir or Eliezer Mayenda might have scored. I’d be more inclined to take the four forwards for what they are – unproven, largely youthful players with no prior experience of the Championship, who continue to look out of their depth in English football’s second tier.

Do Speakman and Louis-Dreyfus really think those four players are capable of firing Sunderland to promotion? Leicester regularly name Jamie Vardy and Patson Daka on the bench. Leeds have a three-pronged forward line who have scored 20 goals between them this term. Southampton have Adam Armstrong and Che Adams.

Sunderland’s attacking options are simply not up to scratch and, for that, the buck has to stop at Speakman’s door. Mowbray’s fear, hinted at in more than one press conference, is that the policy will be to double down and bring in more untried youngsters in January and next summer. Is that really going to result in promotion?

As of last night, that is no longer Mowbray’s concern. Whoever arrives to replace him, however, will have to perform a balancing act between ‘winning’ and ‘sticking to the model’ that looks challenging in the extreme.