WAS this all part of ‘the project’ then? There have been some chaotic spells in Sunderland’s recent history, so to top them all in a 63-day flurry of mistakes, miscommunication and self-inflicted misery takes some doing. Together, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, Kristjaan Speakman and Michael Beale have managed just that though. The Netflix cameras might no longer be rolling, but the comedic farce that passes for life at the Stadium of Light has just completed its most remarkable series yet.

Before we get into the whys and wherefores of Beale’s calamitous 12-game reign which came to an ignominious end earlier today, it is worth pointing out from the outset that none of this needed to happen. Tony Mowbray was not an unpopular head coach. He was hardly unsuccessful either given that Sunderland were eighth when he was dismissed in the wake of December’s draw with Millwall, having made the play-offs last season.

Yes, there were festering issues over recruitment, but there was no compelling urge for Louis-Dreyfus and Speakman to pull the trigger. They did so because they felt they knew best. Why stick with Mowbray’s safe pair of hands when a younger alternative was available, ready to hit more of the metrics that guide the executive-level thinking at the Stadium of Light? Sadly, the answer to that question now appears blindingly obvious.

So, Beale was on the back foot from the off, faced with a fanbase that did not really want him, having been enticed by the possibility of a Will Still or a Kim Hellberg – as an aside, did Louis-Dreyfus and Speakman really not learn any lessons from the hiatus between Lee Johnson’s dismissal and Alex Neil’s appointment when Roy Keane’s potential candidature came to dominate the news agenda – and saddled with the reputation of being something of a failure following last October’s dismissal from Rangers.

In many ways, Beale was doomed to failure from the off, and some of what has subsequently happened is clearly not his fault. He had nothing to do with the farcical build-up to last month’s derby game with Newcastle United, but nevertheless had to deal with much of the ill will and anger that was generated. He didn’t make the decision not to recruit a striker on deadline day, but has had to wrestle with the same attacking failings that ultimately infuriated Mowbray.

The departure of yet another head coach suggests there are fundamental issues at Sunderland that go much deeper than the identity of the man in the dugout. Nevertheless, Beale hardly helped himself either. Rarely can someone have shot themselves in the foot with such depressing regularity.

Stung by the reaction to his opening defeat to Coventry – second-half chants of ‘Sacked in the morning’ were followed by a rousing chorus of ‘We want Beale out’ at the final whistle at the Stadium of Light – the 43-year-old made the ill-advised decision to tackle the supporters head on.

He urged them to back the team when that was exactly what they were doing. He questioned the impact their negativity might be having on the younger players in the squad. Then, in a bizarre press huddle in the foyer at the Academy of Light, necessitated by a power cut plunging his more formal press conference into darkness, he suggested that some of the negativity surrounding his appointment might have been down to his accent. Try telling that to Kevin Ball, Kevin Phillips or Jermain Defoe, who hardly spoke with a Mackem twang.

The gulf between Beale and the fanbase instantly became vast, and while there was an outpouring of heartfelt emotion during this month’s home game with Plymouth, when fans applauded in the fourth minute to show their support for Beale’s four-old-year niece, Poppy, who is fighting against leukemia, the next crisis only ever felt a misplaced act or a throwaway comment away.

That much was evident again at the weekend when Beale’s refusal to shake hands with Trai Hume sparked all kinds of conspiracy theories in the wake of a 2-1 defeat to Birmingham City. Did Beale really not see the full-back walking down the touchline? Were his actions evidence of a breakdown in the relationship between Beale and his squad? Perhaps we will never truly know. Either way, it was yet another stick with which the hapless head coach could be beaten.

As ever with football, none of that might have mattered had Sunderland been winning games on a regular basis. As it was, their form remained largely unchanged from the final couple of months under Mowbray. Beale’s 12 matches in charge resulted in four wins, two draws and six defeats, one of which came via the FA Cup loss to Newcastle.

The Northern Echo: Michael Beale has left his job as Sunderland's head coachMichael Beale has left his job as Sunderland's head coach (Image: Michael Beale)

Sunderland only won one of their away matches on Beale’s watch, with last week’s defeats at Huddersfield and Birmingham strongly suggesting that an inability to address a long-standing problem on the road was going to prove terminal to hopes of making the play-offs.

Tactically, Beale tweaked a few things in an attempt to make Sunderland harder to break down, but he was unable to eradicate the sporadic defensive lapses that had also proved costly under Mowbray. In making his side stick to a more rigid tactical framework, though, he also swept away much of the freedom and verve that had characterised Sunderland’s attacking play under his predecessor.

Beale’s Sunderland were arguably more functional than Mowbray’s version, but they were a lot less flamboyant. Jack Clarke was still capable of digging them out of a hole every now and then, and Beale at least got goals from both Nazariy Rusyn and Mason Burstow. Ultimately, though, his side was less appealing than Mowbray’s line-up and no more successful in terms of results. That was never going to be a popular or effective combination.

So, while the timing of today’s events might have caught some by surprise, the outcome was hardly a major shock. Yet while Speakman can attempt to portray Beale’s departure and the appointment of Mike Dodds to the end of the season as “acting decisively in the best interests of the club”, as he did in the statement that accompanied confirmation of the news, it inevitably places major question marks over the judgement of both the sporting director himself and Louis-Dreyfus alongside him.


What was the due diligence that was carried out prior to Beale’s appointment? Who else was considered as a potential candidate before Beale was chosen as Mowbray’s successor? What do Speakman and Louis-Dreyfus actually want from their head coach? And how do they intend to support their efforts if, as they constantly maintain, winning promotion is their overriding ambition?

Many of the questions that came to the fore in the wake of Mowbray’s departure remain unanswered. Do Louis-Dreyfus and Speakman want to buy and develop young players, with the aim of selling for a profit further down the line in order to improve the club’s financial position, or do they want to win promotion? Because the two are not necessarily compatible. If youth development and ‘the project’ is the be all and end all, then you are not going to get many more willing figureheads than Mowbray. But if winning promotion is the gauge by which head coaches are going to be judged, then why was Alex Pritchard ushered through the exit door last month and Danny Batth moved on in the summer?

So many questions, precious few answers. But the name of yet another head coach added to the Sunderland scrapheap. Even a Netflix scriptwriter couldn’t make it up.