Sunderland’s Premier League dream soured by in-fighting and boardroom interference

Nazariy Rusyn and Trai Hume
Sunderland fans were angry and exasperated after the defeat by Ipswich - Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Sunderland are seventh in the Championship and in the hunt for promotion to the Premier League in only their second season out of League One, so why does it feel like such a fractious and unhappy football club?

Those who travelled to Suffolk last weekend to watch Sunderland’s 2-1 defeat by Ipswich Town described a “toxic” away end where fans scuffled among themselves. For seasoned supporters, who have followed the club through thick and thin, it was a bleak and depressing experience.

Sunderland were in the game, but without a striker to put the ball in the net, and they slipped to a familiar defeat against a side who were promoted to the second tier only in May.

Clips of Sunderland supporters sarcastically chanting “We want a striker, we want a striker” during the game were shared widely. It was a chant Michael Beale, the new head coach, could not fail to hear. He gave a blunt assessment, just as his predecessor Tony Mowbray had done several times before.

They signed four forwards in the summer – Nazariy Rusyn, a Ukrainian from Zorya, Mason Burstow, 20, on loan from Chelsea, Eliezer Mayenda, 18, from Sochaux, and Luis Hemir 20, from Benfica’s B team. Beale, who has lost three out of his six games, is reluctant to give any of them an extended run in the first team. Given the quartet of strikers have scored one goal between them, you can understand why.

Nazariy Rusyn scores against Preston
Nazariy Rusyn is the only one of Sunderland's four centre-forward signings to score a Championship goal this season - Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

At a dinner for former players before Christmas, shortly after Mowbray’s sacking, sporting director Kristjaan Speakman told the room that Sunderland did not need to play with a No 9 and defended the recruitment of the youngsters.

“It’s something we’re trying to add to,” Beale said after the defeat at Ipswich. “We have got four No 9s in the building with a lack of experience in this league, both in age and number of games, so we’re working hard with them in the background. But in the meantime, we’ve got to make the right decisions for the team.”

Bournemouth’s Kieffer Moore is understood to be a leading target. At 31, the Wales international would add something the team have lacked all season; knowledge of English football and a track record of scoring goals at that level.

Recruitment, though, is not controlled by the head coach. It is Speakman’s domain. He has had success, not least signing Jobe Bellingham, younger brother of Jude, for just £2 million in the summer from his former employers Birmingham City. But not with the most important position of all – the forwards.

Beale was an unpopular choice to replace a popular manager. He knew what he was getting himself into. Sources have told Telegraph Sport that Sunderland wanted to appoint Will Still, the young English manager of French club Reims, but would not pay the compensation needed to extract him from his contract.

Michael Beale
Michael Beale's appointment did not win the supporters' approval but he was out of work and immediately available - Action Images via Reuters/Lee Smith

Beale was their second option; a highly rated coach who had initially thrived as a manager at QPR but flopped at Rangers. He had turned down a job to manage in the Premier League from Wolves before moving to Scotland. On paper, he was not a bad appointment, especially as it was his poor recruitment record that undermined him at Rangers, but perceptions are everything for a manager at the start of their reign. He has already become a lightning rod for the growing mood of discontent.

“The big driver of the negativity is what happened to Tony Mowbray,” Stephen Goldsmith, of the Wise Men Say podcast, explains. “I think it’s the first time in my lifetime that Sunderland have sacked a manager the fans didn’t want to go.

“Mowbray got some criticism for only having a Plan A, but the problem is that Plan A was a really good one. It was good to watch, got you off your feet, front-foot really attacking football.

“Sacking him, what it said to supporters, is that the performance wasn’t good enough. They’ve backed themselves into a corner. Anything outside of the play-offs is a failure. What it looks like, is the decision wasn’t football related. In which case, do they really have the fans’ best interests at heart? That was a very selfish move and you have to be really careful with that sort of thing.”

For the first time since he bought the club in 2021, Sunderland’s young French owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus is also being criticised and questioned. As is the all powerful Speakman.

Tellingly, having remained largely in the shadows, occasionally releasing statements on Instagram – as he did when apologising for the decision to allow Newcastle to redecorate one of the bars inside the Stadium of Light in their own colours and branding ahead of the Wear-Tyne derby this month – Dreyfus met supporters this week to try to smooth things over.

The club’s handling of the first North East derby for eight years – they also agreed to let 6,000 Newcastle fans attend the game and removed their own season-ticket holders from the North Stand to accommodate them – incensed fans. It removed a lot of the goodwill Dreyfus had built up after getting the club out of League One.

Sunderland chairman Kyril Louis-Dreyfus
Sunderland chairman Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, right, gave up the Stadium of Light's North Stand to Newcastle fans and allowed their rivals to redecorate a bar with images mocking the home side before the FA Cup tie - Alex Dodd/CameraSport via Getty Image

“I don’t think I will ever forgive them for that,” Goldsmith says. “OK, so promotion would let it fade, but it’s going to take a long time to forget that. We knew it was happening [the bar being decorated in Newcastle branding], we said on the podcast three weeks before it came out and urged them not to do it. They did it anyway. It was the decision of people who do not understand what the club is about.”

It was largely Dreyfus’ decision to sack Mowbray and it is a wound Beale has been unable to heal. Beale’s appointment was the third time Sunderland’s board had gone for an out-of-work manager and therefore avoided having to pay any compensation.

Rightly or wrongly, that fuels the argument, for all their talk of a best-practice culture and ambition, the owner wants to do things on the cheap. As he has done by looking for young players at bargain prices from across Europe.

Sources have told Telegraph Sport the relationship between veteran Mowbray and Dreyfus, 24, had soured months earlier. It was a personality clash that led to a long goodbye. Mowbray joked openly with people in the late summer that his sacking would come and it would be brutally swift.

In private, he talked about interference from above; of being questioned to an unacceptable level about tactics and team selection.

At the age of 60 and with a lifetime of experience in the game, there was bound to be tension if a young owner and hands-on sporting director tried to tell him where he was going wrong.

Mega Mogga himself, Tony Mowbray
Sunderland fans loved Tony Mowbray for playing attractive football despite the financial restraints - Stu Forster/Getty Images

Mowbray had become increasingly bold in his public questioning of Sunderland’s recruitment model. After only six games, Beale already appears to be doing the same thing.

Yet for all the negativity, Sunderland – who face Hull City at home on Friday night – remain in the promotion race. They have a young, exciting – if slightly inconsistent – team and have built the squad on one of the lowest wage budgets in the Championship. There should be cause for optimism even if cracks in relationships have started to appear.

Dreyfus is running Sunderland like a business. He will not be pumping loads of money in chasing the holy grail of the Premier League. But it does not mean promotion is beyond them.

He is trying to be smart, as is Speakman. They are trying something Sunderland have not done before and there is reason to admire the recruitment model they cling stubbornly to. They have unearthed some rough diamonds to polish, which is why Beale was appointed. His reputation is of a coach who improves players.

Every owner goes through a difficult spell and Dreyfus is having his first experience of it. But after the self-inflicted wounds of the derby and inability to work with Mowbray, the pressure is on.

“I think most fans have misgivings about the recruitment model,” Goldsmith says. “We’ve seen this club get into a financial mess before so the template is fine. Lots of clubs use that template: get young players in, make them better, sell on for a profit and reinvest the money in the team.

“But there has to be some flexibility. You can copy and paste what we required in January last year, a centre-forward and a defensive midfielder, and they’ve done nothing to address it.

“This is the longest we have been outside the top flight in our history. People say look where we have come from as though we should be grateful for what we have now, but spending four years in League One was the lowest point in the club’s history. That’s not something to hark on about. This club should be in the Premier League, but are these owners ever going to get us there?”

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