Amid all the kind words and usual platitudes that form the core of an official club statement to announce that a manager has been sacked, Sunderland made one thing abundantly clear: it is sporting director Kristjaan Speakman’s way or not at all.
In removing the much-liked veteran manager, Tony Mowbray, Speakman and the largely silent club owner, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, Sunderland’s two most powerful people, reminded everyone who is in charge and which direction they are convinced the club should be travelling.
Problems began with shock play-off
When Mowbray began to question the logic in the recruitment strategy and the obsession with signing young players from across the globe, to nurture, develop and eventually sell on for a profit to reinvest in more of the same, he was cast aside. He warned, privately, that promotion was highly unlikely.
Tension that first manifested itself in the dying embers of last season’s unexpected top-six finish and narrow play-off semi-final defeat by Luton Town – when injuries deprived Sunderland of their most reliable and experienced defenders – had bubbled below the surface for months.
Sources have described an “uneasy truce” in the summer. Mowbray had backed Speakman into a corner, provocatively claiming after that defeat at Kenilworth Road that he did not know if he would return as manager this season.
His popularity with supporters, fully appreciative of the job he had done in taking a newly promoted Championship team to the brink of promotion, protected him. He could afford to poke his bosses and get away with it.
They would not dare sack someone adored by fans. They were not brave enough to do that, but there was inevitably a suspicion they were biding their time.
The sack came with Sunderland sitting ninth in the Championship, just three points off the play-offs, but with six defeats in their last 12 games. Very few supporters had called for it to happen.
Mowbray was well aware of reports earlier in the year suggesting that Sunderland had already started looking for his replacement. It looked like succession planning had begun.
Speakman and Dreyfus may have only been “window shopping” and could argue it was best practice to plan ahead, but it caused suspicion and mistrust.
Hands were shaken and everyone got on with their jobs, said the right things in public and tried to move on, but Mowbray knew things were going to be harder. Particularly when the team’s best striker, the injury-prone Ross Stewart, was sold to Southampton and star loan signing Amad Diallo went back to Manchester United in the summer.
Suddenly the 60-year-old, who had achieved far more than anyone expected in getting Sunderland into the play-offs, looked like a stop-gap manager. Brought in as a safe pair of hands after the shock of Alex Neil’s desertion to Stoke City in August last year, but not viewed as the long-term answer.
Speakman sees himself as a visionary
Mowbray had developed young players throughout his career, had vast experience in the Championship and would keep them in the second tier at the very least. After promotion, that was all that really mattered and would allow Speakman and his recruitment team time to identify next generation, within budget contraints, to add to the squad.
Speakman thinks of himself as a visionary, a modern football man who has worked out the Matrix. He is obsessed with youth development.
Dreyfus may well be a very wealthy young man from a very rich family, but those with inside knowledge of how the club is run have stressed to Telegraph Sport that it is very much a business project for the Frenchman. He will not be pumping large sums of money in chasing a dream. There is nothing wrong with that.
The recruitment department, led by Speakman, who at the age of 44 had worked his way up the football ladder after starting his career as an academy coach at Derby County and Birmingham City, could provide the players for the manager to work with.
The manager or head coach would get on with moulding them into a successful Championship team while also improving them as individual players.
The more experience they got, the better they and the team would become. That, at least, is how the board believed it should work. That is the model they have wedded themselves too. This is the blueprint and it will not be changed.
At this point, though, it is worth remembering that Mowbray had only been appointed because Neil, the manager who had finally got Sunderland out of League One after four years in the third tier, left for Stoke because he also questioned the recruitment strategy and business model.
He did not want to work with kids; he wanted experience and proven Championship players alongside them. They are not cheap and do not have as much potential for resale profit.
He, like Mowbray, began to believe that promotion, which is what Sunderland’s board say they want, will not be possible unless compromises were made in recruitment. He left because he did not feel they ever would be.
A 21st manager in 21 years
The end result is that Sunderland, a club which has been renowned for chewing up and spitting out managers, is looking for another one. It will be their 20th change in the dugout since 2002.
What comes next, will define everything. Two managers have ultimately disagreed with the model and questioned the vision. If two become three, things will start to unravel and it will be Speakman in the firing line.
“This was a difficult decision to make, but we remain loyal to our ambition and our strategy,” said Speakman, in a statement that many fans suspect had been sitting in a draft file for a while. “And felt that now was the right moment to take this step.”
The tone of Dreyfus’ comments was equally forthright: “As custodians of our great club, we believe in our long-term strategy that we hope will ensure sustainability and success for SAFC.
“Central to that approach is a relentless demand for a high-performance culture to be implemented throughout the club and the development of a strong playing identity that you, our loyal supporters, can all be proud of.”
If promotion to the Premier League, a division the Wearsiders last graced six years ago, is the ultimate aim, it will be Speakman and Dreyfus, 26, the youngest owner in English football, who decides how they get there. It is their project and Speakman’s vision and model that will, hopefully, return the club to the top flight.
Supporters are still willing to trust the people in charge. There is goodwill after promotion from League One and last season’s near miss in the play-offs. The players who have arrived under Speakman have talent and obvious potential. Some of the football has been great to watch.
But that is ultimately meaningless if they do not have the right manager to lead them. Mowbray’s view was that too many were “not quite ready” to give Sunderland the results they needed to be in promotion contention.
Young managers making their mark
There is a view that Speakman already knows who he wants to replace Mowbray. Sources have said he wants a younger, more dynamic manager, with modern methods, language and style.
He will have looked at the job someone like Kieran McKenna has done with Ipswich Town and will convince himself there is someone like him out there who can do a better job than Mowbray. He may well be right. He could also be wrong.
Southampton sacked a popular manager in Nigel Adkins many years ago and replaced him with a young Argentinian called Mauricio Pochettino and things turned out pretty well.
Hull City appointed Marco Silva and almost pulled off a remarkable escape from relegation when they had looked dead and buried until he arrived. Both were largely unknown managers from abroad who thrived in English football.
But, would they have done so with a team as young as Sunderland’s? Could they have moulded young men from France, Ukraine, Portugal, Netherlands, Costa Rica and, of course the British Isles, into promotion contenders while knowing those players will be sold when the time is right to cash in?
Could they compete consistently with teams operating with far bigger wage budgets and larger transfer funds, those dropping out of the Premier League with all their extra quality and squad depth that brings?
Could they thrive without a proven striker in their side - Sunderland’s supposedly specialist centre forwards have not scored a league goal between them this season?
Because this is what Sunderland’s new manager will have to do if they are going to turn Speakman and Dreyfus’ vision into a reality.
Everyone in charge of football clubs has a plan, whether it is the right one depends entirely on results.
From the outside looking in, Mowbray was doing a good job within testing parameters. The people running Sunderland disagreed. But if they get the next appointment wrong, supporters may well start to disagree with the way they are doing things too.