When the former Sunderland inside forward, Len Shackleton, wrote his autobiography he entitled one chapter: “The average director’s knowledge of football.” It comprised a blank page and ensured that, back in 1956, ‘Clown Prince of Soccer’ generated plenty of headlines.
Not that the late Shackleton was either joking or deploying a cheap marketing trick. One of the finest players of his generation, the England international retained an immense scepticism about many boardroom manoeuvrings and would doubtless have had something suitably caustic to say about Tony Mowbray’s shock sacking last Monday. Has anything really changed since the mid-20th century?
The much-admired Mowbray’s departure has provoked sadness among Sunderland’s supporters and, from all accounts, players too. After guiding a very young, frequently thrilling, team to last season’s Championship semi-finals and leaving them within touching distance of the playoff places, it is hard to see what the 60-year-old did wrong.
With the caretaker manager, Mike Dodds, adhering to Mowbray’s stylistic template this restorative win against their promotion rivals from West Brom not only bolsters Sunderland’s playoff hopes but enhances the managerial vacancy’s attraction.
Candidates can only hope their numbers add up. It seems that Kristjaan Speakman, the club’s sporting director and the trust fund billionaire Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, Sunderland’s majority owner, are obsessed with a data-led management model.
They evidently believe that statistical analysis will identify a bright young coach able to work miracles on a relative shoestring budget and lead them into the Premier League’s promised land.
The pair’s current shortlist includes Will Still, the 31-year-old manager of Ligue 1 Reims currently impressing in France, Julien Sablé, the 43-year-old assistant manager of Nice and Kim Hellberg, the 35-year-old head coach of Swedish top-flight residents IFK Varnamo. It is hoped Sunderland’s 20th manager in the past 21 years could be installed by the end of this week.
Louis-Dreyfus watched from the directors’ box as an extremely harsh offside decision denied Jobe Bellingham an early goal after West Brom’s goalkeeper Alex Palmer could not quite hold Patrick Roberts’s initial shot. Jude’s little brother is a talented forward who spearheaded Dodds’s starting XI with invention and intelligence, keeping a visiting defence already stretched by the exciting home wingers, Jack Clarke and Roberts, on their toes.
The only problem is that, for all his ability, Bellingham remains much more a creator than a goal-scorer and the glaring lack of the latter in the home squad probably represents a big reason why Louis-Dreyfus and Speakman pressed the managerial panic button. Bar Bellingham’s disallowed effort the closest they came to a first half goal was when Roberts collapsed, somewhat dramatically, in the face of a visiting challenge and appealed in vain for a penalty.
Carlos Corberán’s side harbour promotion ambitions of their own but suffered a setback here when Dan Ballard’s nasty, yellow carded, tackle left their principal forward Josh Maja wincing in agony before limping off to be replaced by Tom Fellows.
Ankle trouble dictated that Maja was making his first start of the season for Corberan but Stadium of Light season ticket holders seemed relieved to see the back of a forward they had adored before his departure for Bordeaux four years ago.
Suitably encouraged Sunderland re-emerged for the second half very much on the front foot. Adil Aouchiche saw a first time shot rebound off a post before Palmer’s superb save somehow kept Clarke’s follow up out. Whether with Sunderland or, most probably, someone else, Clarke will surely be a Premier League player next season.
The Wearsiders’ playoff hopes were enhanced in the 69th minute when Ballard propelled them into a deserved lead courtesy of a fabulous header following his connection with substitute Alex Pritchard’s beautifully calibrated free kick.
When Pritchard’s wonderful counter-attacking vision cued Dan Neil up to chip Palmer and register Sunderland’s second goal in the 86th minute it looked done and dusted. But just as Dodds had reason to congratulate himself on introducing Pritchard’s guile, Brandon Thomas-Asante’s late header from Gonzalo Ávila Gordón’s cross reduced the deficit, making for a nervy denouncement.
There is quite a game in prospect when third placed, apparently renascent, Leeds visit the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night.