Next Sunderland manager: Why the search is taking so long and where it currently stands explained

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Sunderland are still searching for Michael Beale’s successor as head coach almost three months after his departure

It is now almost three months since Sunderland brought an early end to Michael Beale’s troubled tenure, confirming that Mike Dodds would be placed in interim charge for the rest of the campaign. 

Sunderland’s play-off aspirations were by this point beginning to drift, the team in decline and a poor January window offering little hope of a reversal. They were not, however, out of the picture by any means. Dodds endured wretched luck with injuries and suspensions but the decision not to appoint a permanent successor there and there has come to be seen as many on Wearside essentially as a waving of the white flag; the start of a painful end to the campaign in which apathy swept over a frustrated fanbase.

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Sunderland’s decision to delay then is relevant because it gives us insight into why the pursuit continues now. The final whistle of the defeat to Sheffield Wednesday came as a relief to most, the end of a bitterly disappointing chapter in which results had declined but so too had the quality of the front-foot, fearless football which had enraptured supporters before Tony Mowbray’s departure. Many hoped that final whistle would start as a starting pistol on an ambitious rebuild. That, after time working in the background, Sunderland would come out of the traps quickly and aggressively to show that next season was going to be very different and that the purgatory of recent weeks was worth it. Instead, there has largely been silence. David Bruce’s promotion to Chief Business Officer has been confirmed but there has been nothing to indicate the way forward on the football pitch. Perhaps most crucially, there has been no recognition or accountability for just how badly last season unravelled and through that, an attempt to reassure supporters that the lessons have been learned which can prevent a repeat.

Though the decision is not his, Dodds himself offered some insight into why this might be the case before the end of the campaign. His view was that this summer, actions would speak louder than words, that the recruitment of a new head coach and the first few signings thereafter would act as a marker demonstrating intent to the fans. The risk is that the longer the wait for those decisions goes on, the more it looks as if those fans who stuck with the club through its recent malaise look as if they are being taken for granted. Or perhaps even worse, that the way the campaign fell away isn’t seen as that big of a deal.

When Sunderland opted to sack Mowbray, Beale emerged as a contender for the vacancy because of his coaching background and the belief that he would be a good fit for a young squad with promise but in need of what the Black Cats felt was more tactical refinement. It would be the understatement of the season to say that it was a flawed decision, drastically underestimating Mowbray’s qualities but perhaps more importantly underestimating the wide skill set needed to manage such a huge club. Part of Sunderland’s delay in appointing a successor to Beale was in acknowledging this error, stepping away to reflect and reassess before beginning the next recruitment process. Perhaps there is some optimism to take from this, that a better fit will be found this time around with a broader and more fitting set of criteria for the challenge ahead. At this stage, we can’t say anymore than perhaps. 

Beale, though, was far from the only contender and not an initial frontrunner. What Sunderland found when looking for Mowbray’s successor was that many of those who fitted the bill were either reluctant to leave their current posts in midseason, or borderline impossible to extract even if in principle they were willing. It made the timing of Mowbray’s dismissal even more baffling and counterproductive, a lesson which has hopefully been heeded for future campaigns. It was this beyond all else, though, that convinced Sunderland of the logic in waiting for the summer the next time the vacancy came around. Put simply, the view was that a wider and better pool of candidates would be available. 

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That, in a nutshell, explains the current quiet. Sunderland have spoken to a broad pool of candidates, have run an extensive interview process and have options in place as they now move towards the final stages of the search. In some cases, however, futures are not entirely settled and decisions still need to be made. The view of the club hierarchy seems clearly to be that in holding their nerve, Sunderland stay in the race for an ideal appointment. As such, ruling anyone in our out definitively is at this stage a fool’s errand. It seems fair to assume that there are prominent candidates whose names are not yet in the public domain, given that the bookies’ frontrunners Will Still and Rene Maric are yet to feature significantly in the current process. Both have been of interest to Sunderland in the past, and so it is no great stretch to say that in theory they could yet return to prominence at some stage. Needless to say that the longer the wait, the greater the pressure becomes.

A key question amid all of this, and one which will be featuring prominently in Sunderland’s thinking, is at what stage the wait becomes detrimental to the chances of success next season. At this stage, the club could perhaps argue that little has been lost. While decisions have been made on those out of contract this summer, they are not hugely significant ones in terms of how the squad will look next season. There is understood still to be a fair amount of time to run on the option to make Callum Styles’ loan permanent, and so as of now there is every chance a new appointment could have some input on that. The broad strokes of how pre-season will look are already, as you would expect, in place. Time will quickly become of the essence, all the same. Recruitment meetings are now inevitably beginning to step up as potential targets come into view and though the role of the head coach in recruitment at Sunderland is limited, their input is still essential if there is to be harmony next season. It would also be a significant move in looking to retain key players over the summer to have a new head coach in place who can begin to build relationships and spell out a coherent vision of how Sunderland get back to competing at the top end of the campaign. It also goes without saying that in waiting for some candidates, you risk losing out on others. 

Part of the issue with all of this is that whatever your view of the club’s broader strategy, and there are many impassioned ones, what undeniably existed for so long was a clear direction of travel and decisions that were being made to serve that purpose. 

Though there were issues, bones of contention, mistakes made and some of them significant ones (the initial failure to disclose the true nature of the club’s shareholding one of the most obvious), the view by and large was that Sunderland were on an upward trajectory even if at times it was a little bumpy. Amid the debacle around the Black Cats Bar and the move from Mowbray to Beale, the thread linking Sunderland’s decisions and setting out a direction of travel seemed to come loose. Is this seemingly indefinite wait for white smoke a necessary evil to put the club back on track, or evidence of more disarray? The ongoing silence means fans can be forgiven for fearing the latter even if there is logic to the delay. Kristjaan Speakman said on February 19th that the club would be updating supporters ‘as and when significant developments are made’ - few would have imagined then that the three-month anniversary of Beale’s departure would come to pass with little sign of that. It’s a decision of such significance that demands time and proper process, but it’s an increasingly nervous wait.

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