It took 127 days for Sunderland’s promotion aspirations to officially end following Tony Mowbray’s sacking in December but, in reality, those aspirations evaporated there and then despite there being over half of the season remaining.

Mowbray knew what was coming.

As he shared his thoughts on Sunderland’s 1-1 draw with Millwall at The Den there was an unusual transparency beyond the parameters of what had unfolded in the game – Jack Clarke’s late penalty enough to salvage a draw to keep Sunderland within three points of the top six in the Championship but not enough to alter a challenging period which stood at two wins in nine games.

Mowbray voiced his hopes for his players in that they would take the advice he has given them on board to be able to better themselves and develop beyond his tenure while also accepting the likelihood of losing his job should results not transform. Prior to that, Mowbray had deposited a number of questions at the club’s boardroom in relation to the philosophy they had outlined in the summer – Mowbray of the belief the club had not strengthened adequately enough to maintain their pace of last season having reached the play-offs ahead of schedule.


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Ultimately, Mowbray would prove to be right. Having struggled to get the same kind of consistency and fluidity out of his team as we saw last year, he was sacked 19 games into the season with Sunderland ninth in the Championship table. The weeks that would follow would be the undoing of a club who now finds itself desperately trying to right some of those wrongs having taken more than the proverbial two steps back.

This is the story of Sunderland’s 2023-24 campaign in black and white.


You can almost trace the origins of this season back to the conclusion of last season and the aftermath of Sunderland’s narrow play-off semi-final defeat to Luton Town. While defeat in a play-off is always likely to hurt, given the circumstances of Sunderland’s patched up squad going toe-to-toe with a land of giants in Luton’s more seasoned Championship team under Rob Edwards, there should have been cause for optimism about what could have been achieved this year. Instead, the unravelling began as Mowbray cast doubt over his own future amid suggestions the club’s owners had been succession planning for Mowbray’s exit – Italian coach, Francesco Farioli, the man linked with potentially ousting Mowbray.

For all succession planning is wise, it seemed harsh on Mowbray if he were to be denied the opportunity to progress Sunderland himself having picked up the pieces following Alex Neil’s exit in August. You only have to glance at Sunderland’s final day opponents Sheffield Wednesday to see how severely things could have deteriorated after Neil had walked out given what transpired at Hillsborough following Darren Moore’s exit after he had guided the club to promotion from League One via the play-offs.

We Are Sunderland: Tony Mowbray was sacked in December despite Sunderland being just three points outside the Championship play-off placesTony Mowbray was sacked in December despite Sunderland being just three points outside the Championship play-off places (Image: PA)

Mowbray’s disgruntlement continued throughout the pre-season trip to America as his call for further experience fell on deaf ears before he was extended an olive branch with the arrival of Bradley Dack on a free transfer. The make-up of Sunderland’s squad, beyond that, had reduced in age and experience – the club’s four summer signings in attack proving to be a sizable downgrade on what walked out of the Stadium of Light door in Ross Stewart, Amad Diallo’s return to Manchester United and even Joe Gelhardt’s return to Elland Road with Leeds United dropping back into the Championship.

The division looked stronger, and it was questionable as to whether Sunderland had improved their hand.

That said, when Ipswich Town visited the Stadium of Light on the opening day of the Championship season the sense of excitement and optimism was almost palpable for around an hour. Nathan Broadhead marked his return to Wearside with a goal as Kieran McKenna’s side got their return to the second tier off to a flying start to support their pre-season credentials of being one of the favourites for promotion – Broadhead demonstrating what Sunderland would be missing out on throughout the entire campaign.

Sunderland lost their first three games of the season in all competitions – including at Preston North End where just three months earlier the club celebrated a memorable afternoon in clinching a top-six spot. Very quickly, the mood felt different. There was an air of anxiety that Sunderland had in fact regressed which heightened with the off-field noise of key players being set to leave the club ahead of the end of the transfer window. Stewart, Clarke, Patrick Roberts, Lynden Gooch, Danny Batth and Alex Pritchard were all names linked with moves away as the club considered either cashing in or moving on with their policy of recruiting and operating with younger players – either way, it added substance to the niggling feeling of an unrest on Wearside.

Stewart was sold for up to £10million on deadline day to Southampton who also considered an approach for Roberts, while Burnley were rebuffed in their advances on Clarke. Batth, despite being named player of the season for 2022-23, was shown the door to Norwich City while the long-serving Gooch saw his time on Wearside come to an emotional end as he bid farewell for Stoke City, with Pritchard remaining by virtue of being unable to find a move. ‘What’s going on?’ seemed to be the overriding emotion as the feel-good factor following the conclusion of the previous season appeared to have been torched.

We Are Sunderland: Sunderland failed to replace striker Ross Stewart in the summer transfer window as a number of senior players were also allowed to leave the clubSunderland failed to replace striker Ross Stewart in the summer transfer window as a number of senior players were also allowed to leave the club (Image: PA)

Despite that, however, Mowbray displayed his guile once more as Sunderland actually embarked on their best run of the season over the course of the next eight games with six wins, one draw and just one defeat coming at home to Cardiff City in a game they dominated. Within that run, Sunderland scored 18 goals which included their performance of the season in a 5-0 win over recently relegated Southampton at the Stadium of Light. Maybe, everything would be alright after all as Sunderland went into October’s Wear-Tees derby fourth in the table from their opening 10 games of the season.

But Sunderland’s transfer window, and the lack of added quality outside the impressive first impressions of Jobe Bellingham, soon caught up with Mowbray and his squad as they hit the buffers both in front of goal and in terms of results with just nine goals in the next nine games – Mowbray’s final games in charge.

Sunderland’s consistency already appeared to be an issue which is why Mowbray’s exit wasn’t universally opposed, albeit there was an unease to the decision. But the decision to pull the trigger on Mowbray was the beginning of a series of events that would sabotage the mood on Wearside and break a level of trust with supporters that is still to be built back up.




Twenty-four hours prior to Mowbray’s dismissal, Sunderland were paired with Newcastle United in the third round of the FA Cup for the first Wear-Tyne derby in almost eight years. For some, it was a dream tie, a chance to upstage the old enemy and extend a run of nine consecutive derbies without defeat over the course of the last decade. For others, it was the nightmare scenario. Sunderland’s handling of the tie, however, was lamentable.

The club failed to offer any pushback on Newcastle’s request for an enhanced allocation which meant 6,000 away fans were granted tickets for the tie – that despite Sunderland having ensured away allocations for league fixtures were reduced this season owing to a series of crowd incidents from away supporters last year. The increased allocation, coupled with safety concerns over housing such a big away following in the traditional upper North Stand area of the Stadium of Light meant a rethink was needed – the outcome doing little to appease Sunderland supporters as Newcastle were granted the entire North Stand instead.

We Are Sunderland: Newcastle United supporters were granted the full North Stand in January's Wear-Tyne derby in the FA Cup third roundNewcastle United supporters were granted the full North Stand in January's Wear-Tyne derby in the FA Cup third round (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Although Sunderland’s traditional ‘home end’ has since been moved to the Roker End in the opposite stand, the North Stand represented the initial move from the Fulwell End at Roker Park. To request those supporters to move in order to house their rivals never sat right and duly caused unrest. The real nadir came soon after though, as images emerged of the club’s premier hospitality suite, the Black Cats Bar, being redecorated in black and white with accompanying Newcastle United slogans, with travelling fans set to be granted access to the suite after being given the North Stand in full.

Kyril Louis-Dreyfus accepted a serious error in judgement over matters but the damage had been done. Would you ever seen green and white paraphernalia hung in the stands of Ibrox? Would Old Trafford ever transform its away end to incorporate a liver bird at every access block? Has there ever been any claret to join the blue of Birmingham City at St. Andrew’s? Would Louis-Dreyfus have taken so kindly to such a red-carpet treatment of Paris Saint-Germain at the Stade Velodrome, the home of his boyhood team, Olympique de Marseille?

The answer to all of those questions is no.

This not only represented a severe lack of judgement but, for some, was an unforgiveable oversight regarding the biggest of all games.

The furore surrounding the build-up to the derby was compounded by the appointment of Michael Beale as Mowbray’s successor – a marriage which never felt likely to work and subsequently struggled to even enjoy the romance of a honeymoon period. Beale established himself as a leading candidate when the club were unable to pry Will Still away from Ligue 1 side Stade de Reims with director of football Kristjaan Speakman in awe of Beale’s coaching. But the former Rangers boss found himself apologising to supporters after his first game in charge as Sunderland were thrashed at the Stadium of Light by Coventry City, with fans chanting for the sacked Mowbray.

We Are Sunderland: Sunderland were comfortably beaten by rivals Newcastle United in the third round of the FA CupSunderland were comfortably beaten by rivals Newcastle United in the third round of the FA Cup (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Beale took seven points from nine over the Christmas period heading into the game with Newcastle before surrendering in the derby as Eddie Howe’s Premier League side strolled to a 3-0 success on Wearside. At first glance there was an acceptance of the disparity in quality between the two teams and the riches Newcastle can now profit from under their Saudi-led regime. The context, however, came to light just a few short hours later when Middlesbrough gave an Aston Villa side rivalling Newcastle in the Premier League more than a scare in their third round tie at the Riverside before falling narrowly short courtesy of a deflected Matty Cash goal. Coventry City, another example, of a Championship side holding their own later in the competition in their heroic semi-final effort against Manchester United.

Not only did Sunderland fail to lay a glove on their great rivals, they never even raised a hand. The blood and thunder remained in the stands only.

A derby defeat is difficult for any manager to get over in this part of the North East, just ask Steve Bruce. But Beale’s misery was compounded with defeats against Ipswich and Hull City as Sunderland’s form and attacking impetus dropped off a cliff.


We Are Sunderland: Sunderland's xG (green) and xG conceded (purple) average trendline shows just how much their attacking output dropped off following Tony Mowbray's sackingSunderland's xG (green) and xG conceded (purple) average trendline shows just how much their attacking output dropped off following Tony Mowbray's sacking (Image: StatsBomb)

Beale was vociferously heckled following that home defeat to Hull as #BealeOut trended on social media throughout the next week. In just four short weeks, it already felt untenable for the 43-year-old.

Beale was isolated on Wearside. He arrived at the Stadium of Light without the bounce board of any of his own backroom staff and he lived a dual life in the North East and Scotland back with his family. He could do little but acknowledge the discontent surrounding his tenure when confined to the four walls of his hotel room. And that proved to be the case when he hit back at the negativity in a move which would signal the beginning of the end of his tenure.

Sunderland’s season was quickly being plunged into darkness, much like the Academy of Light when a power cut pulled the plug on Beale’s pre-match press conference ahead of the visit of Stoke. Beale improvised by continuing his media duties in the halls of the Academy of Light where he launched a defence of his appointment and results, admitting he was ‘bemused and perplexed’ by the ‘outside noise’ of supporters.

“You can say afterwards it’s about style or this and that but let’s cut to the chase, people didn’t want me. The reality is there wasn’t a feelgood factor about me coming in,” said Beale. “It’s fine, I’m not crying over it, I’m a big boy, but when people are personal they’ve lost straight away.

“I can’t change my accent or where I’m from. I’m proud of where I’m from. I replaced a popular manager but I didn’t sack him, did I? And he won two in nine before he left, so are we making out it was all perfect?

“I feel I deserve a little bit more respect because my journey deserves that, but if people don’t want to give it then that’s fine.”

We Are Sunderland: Michael Beale lasted just 12 games as Sunderland head coachMichael Beale lasted just 12 games as Sunderland head coach (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Beale’s insipid spell lasted just three more weeks having won four of his 12 games in charge with Sunderland becoming less and less attractive to watch outside of Clarke’s occasional heroics. His exit was littered with controversy after appearing to snub Trai Hume's handshake upon substituting the full-back during the defeat at Birmingham before allegations linking him to a since-deleted social media account that appeared to launch a stark defence of Beale’s time and incidents with the club.

Just 77 days on from the decision to sack Mowbray, Beale’s reign was over, and Sunderland’s season and reputation had gone up in smoke following a catalogue of errors - that without referencing another transfer window which failed to address the glaring issues within the Sunderland squad while also allowing leading assist-maker, Pritchard, to leave the club after the midfielder felt compelled to go on strike due to differences over contract negotiations and how he felt treated by the club.

Speakman accepted ‘full accountability’ on the club’s behalf over the appointment of Beale before being part of the decision making process which handed the role over to Mike Dodds on an interim basis for the rest of the campaign. That decision, and the rest of the campaign, yielded just two wins in 13 matches, Sunderland having won just five of 22 games in 2024, scoring 18 goals, and just eight of 28 since deciding they were better off without Mowbray.

The highlight of Dodds' second stint in charge this season likely came in a week of back-to-back away fixtures at Leeds and West Bromwich Albion in April when taking four points from a possible six. Sunderland's play-off hopes had unofficially ended long before the trip to Elland Road but a defensive shut-out against high-flying Leeds, albeit a positive result, officially ended their hopes of reaching the play-offs with four games remaining, 127 days on from Mowbray's exit. Four days later, and a win at the Hawthorns, Sunderland officially secured their Championship status - such was the magnitude of their slide down the table since that decision to change the landscape at the Stadium of Light in December.

We Are Sunderland: Mike Dodds oversaw two wins in 13 games as interim head coach as Sunderland finished 16th in the Championship tableMike Dodds oversaw two wins in 13 games as interim head coach as Sunderland finished 16th in the Championship table (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Sunderland’s form since their mid-season itchy trigger finger has been of relegation standard. The club’s self-professed ‘obsession with progression’ has led to regression and disillusionment among a fanbase the club had in the palm of their hands at the end of last season. There have been banners unfurled in protest, mass walkouts and a severe undertone of apathy submerged around the Stadium of Light with a 16th placed finish, 22 league defeats and the most home defeats (11) in the division to mull over throughout the summer.


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Season ticket sales will be the greatest indicator yet of the damage done to the goodwill of a support base who continue to find themselves entrenched in a low point of the club’s history, last season aside.

Prior to Sunderland’s relegation from the Championship in 2018, you have to go back to 1995 for the last time the club finished lower than third in what is now known as the Championship, with four of those years spent in League One. While the current ownership group are not to blame for Sunderland dropping to this level, by consequence of ownership they are now saddled with the burden of restoring this club to, at the very least, be competing to get back into the Premier League – something which never felt likely beyond the decision to part ways with Mowbray.

Interim head coach Dodds professed to the need for there to be a level of self-reflection at all levels of the club as to where and how things went so awry this season. Learning from those mistakes will be imperative over the coming weeks and months ahead of next season where the expectation simply must be to challenge at the right end of the table – for some, it will be they only we they can regain that trust. As was allowed this season, Sunderland can't just plod on.