THEY say the bookmakers rarely get it wrong but how off the mark they were at the weekend.

Sheffield Wednesday were almost 2/1 to win at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, a gift for the punter.  The Owls, in need of a result to stay up, couldn't have asked for a kinder final day fixture.

And to think when those two sides met back at Hillsborough in September, Sunderland - then managed by Tony Mowbray - were fourth, only five points off the automatic promotion places and with the best goal difference in the division. Wednesday, at the time, were bottom and winless. They finished just three points apart, the result of Danny Rohl's magic with the Owls and the Black Cats pressing the self destruct button.

How did Sunderland get here? How, in 12 months, did they go from the swashbuckling final day win at Preston that promised so much, regardless of what would happen in the play-offs, to the timid no-show against Sheffield Wednesday that followed some frankly pathetic displays in the final weeks of the season.

There's quite simply no getting away from the fact it all goes back to two December decisions: Mowbray's exit and Michael Beale's arrival.

A year ago next week, Mowbray sat in the bowels of Kenilworth Road in the aftermath of his side's play-off defeat to Luton and said: "Who knows what my future holds."

It was clear last summer cracks were appearing in the relationship between the head coach and the hierarchy. Surely, then, with that in mind, a stronger succession in plan should have been put in place in the months that followed. Most Sunderland fans were disappointed to see Mowbray go but initially gave Black Cats bosses the benefit of the doubt in the hope they had something up their sleeve. With respect to  Beale, he wasn't a name that excited. Nobody, though, could have predicted just how quickly things would unravel - on and off the pitch.

The Black Cats Bar debacle was a shambles that will leave a sour taste in the mouth for years to come, and to add salt to a gaping wound came at a time when performances - if not results - had taken a turn for the worse. Sunderland didn't lay a glove on Newcastle in a derby to forget on Wearside. The mess in the build-up, the tepid display, the photograph on the pitch - it was a humiliation from start to finish.

It's easy to forget that when Sunderland beat Preston 2-0 on New Year's Day they moved back into the top six. And they would reside in the play-off places once more the month later after the home win over Plymouth. But never did the Black Cats feel like true promotion contenders. There was no momentum, no buzz. It is, however, a reminder of what could - should - have been this season, had Sunderland not shot themselves in the foot.

As Mike Dodds himself admitted last week, Beale wasn't the right "fit" for Sunderland. That's on those who appointed him. You can't help but feel, looking back, that Beale knew as much early on. Results since his exit have been disastrous but the Black Cats wouldn't have finished in the top six with the former Rangers boss at the helm.

It was interesting to hear Dodds last week talk about how difficult he found the move back into the dugout after Beale's turbulent tenure. It's something he's hinted at for the last couple of months but even last week, when he opened up to an extent, it was clear he was still holding back.


Results during this final chunk of the season, during Dodds' third interim spell in charge, have been dreadful. Only bottom club Rotherham picked up fewer points than the Black Cats in the final 13 games of the season. Had the campaign stretched for a further month, there'd have been a very real risk that Sunderland would have been left scrapping for their lives at the bottom, especially when you consider the form of plenty of teams down there.

Dodds, though, was dealt a difficult hand. Not only did he have to pick up the pieces after Beale's exit, he had to do so without Jack Clarke, Sunderland's best player who bailed them out on countless occasions in the first half of the season.

With Kristjaan Speakman and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus silent, it was Dodds who the difficult questions were put to, questions he couldn't really answer, but he always tried.

Dodds, Beale and Mowbray have something in common, they all had to try and get a tune out of the misfiring forward line. The head coach decisions were undoubtedly the costliest errors but those in the dugout weren't helped by failures when it came to signing strikers. Mason Burstow had the look of a shrewd bit of business last summer but for whatever reason the Chelsea loanee's time at Sunderland hasn't worked out. There's been flashes from Nazariy Rusyn but the language barrier and the time needed to adapt to the culture on and the off the pitch meant he was never likely to be an immediate success. Hemir and Eliezer Mayenda simply aren't first team ready. Speakman admitted midway through the season that Sunderland need to be better at communicating their expectations of young players. Hemir was handed the No.9 shirt and led the line all through pre-season.

Dodds, Beale and Mowbray had something else in common: they agreed on the need for experience. That, as Dodds said last week, doesn't have to be 30+ players on the slide but those with the know-how and experience that comes with playing a couple of hundred games.

There's so much that Sunderland must learn from this season but right up there at the top of the list is surely a need to strike a balance when it comes to recruitment. Sunderland's model is exciting but young players need help to ensure they fulfil their potential.

The saddest and most damning thing for Sunderland is that come the end of the season anger in the stands had largely turned to apathy. And just 12 months earlier, there'd been so much excitement and pride, a thrilling, fearless team who were a joy to watch, guided by a head coach who got it.

Sunderland need to reconnect this summer. With the fans. And with the identity of the side of the 2022/23 season. That starts with the head coach appointment. They can't get it wrong again.

Despite all of the above, there are building blocks and positives. They have a squad that boasts future Premier League stars. Jobe Bellingham has enjoyed an encouraging first season on Wearside, Chris Rigg has made forward strides after his breakthrough campaign.

But there's also the future of Clarke to be resolved. The earlier, the better. If Sunderland get big money, how much will be pumped back into strengthening the squad? Will they find an answer to their striker woes this summer? Will this, 16th in the Championship, be the low-point? It has to be.