THERE are a lot of things Sunderland need if they are to improve on the current campaign next season. A new permanent head coach, obviously. A new centre-forward, preferably one that is actually capable of scoring a few goals. Some experience to supplement a youthful squad that has shown plenty of promise this term, but that remains debilitatingly unbalanced.

Above all else, though, the Black Cats would benefit from a period of stability rather than the constant chaos that has characterised the last five months, and that is ultimately the decisive factor in the self-inflicted implosion of a season that promised much, but that will end in a fortnight’s time with rancour and recrimination swirling around the Stadium of Light.

When Kristjaan Speakman and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus made the still largely unfathomable decision to dismiss Tony Mowbray in early December, Sunderland were eighth and within touching distance of the play-off places. After Saturday’s defeat to Millwall in their penultimate home game, they are 13th, with hopes of promotion long since having been extinguished.

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The disastrous appointment of Michael Beale, followed by his hurried departure, the panicked promotion of Mike Dodds as a short-term successor, followed by a period of infuriating inertia in which the interim boss has effectively been hung out to dry. This has hardly been a stellar spell for Sunderland’s ownership group, and that’s before we even get to some of the off-field decisions around January’s ill-fated derby that caused so much understandable anger amongst the fanbase.

Sunderland need leadership, and ultimately that has to start at the top. The mistakes of the current campaign cannot be repeated next season if the Black Cats are to regenerate some of the momentum that has been squandered this term.

“It’s not the blame game, and it’s not excuses, it’s just clear facts that a lot of things have happened this season,” admitted Callum Styles, who arrived on loan in January when the gathering maelstrom was approaching its peak. “When there’s a lot of changes, and you don’t have that continuity, then it is hard to keep momentum going forward.

“It’s hard to keep that up. But there is a lot of talent in this squad, and there’s a lot to be optimistic about looking ahead to next season. We’ve still got two games to go, and we want to finish as strongly as we can. Beyond that though, I definitely think there’s reasons to be positive.”


Admittedly, positivity was hard to find on Saturday as Sunderland’s limp to the Championship finishing line continued. A desperately-poor game against a Millwall side whose lack of ambition could at least be excused given their need to guarantee their survival felt like a pretty good way to sum up the Black Cats’ tailspin in the second half of the campaign.

All the age-old problems that have been apparent for much of the season were evident again – the lack of a striker, with Dodds scrambling between Bradley Dack and Jobe Bellingham in a desperate attempt to find anyone capable of leading the line, a resultant lack of attacking threat, with Sunderland only recording one effort on goal in the whole of the game, and a failure to muster any kind of a reaction when the home side’s backline was eventually breached with 19 minutes remaining.

That Duncan Watmore, was the Millwall player inflicting the goalscoring damage was probably fitting as, within four minutes of coming onto the field as a substitute, the ex-Black Cat mustered more of an attacking presence than all of his former team-mates combined as he stole ahead of Dan Ballard to prod home at the front post, albeit with the final touch perhaps coming off the Sunderland defender.

Should Sunderland, with nothing of significance to play for, have been more adventurous in both their approach and system? Perhaps, although given their now obvious limitations, it might well have made no difference.

“If we were better with the ball in the top end of the pitch, the set-up would have made a lot more sense,” said Dodds. Yet another case of what might have been.