As Sunderland’s players emerged back out of the tunnel at the Stadium of Light they were greeted by the realisation of what is meant by the term of a season unravelling.

The vast majority of the 41,000 or more who had populated the ground for the club’s final game of the season with Sheffield Wednesday had vacated as Sunderland’s first team players and staff set sail on their ‘lap of appreciation,’ such is the fabled routine upon the dropping of the curtain. Up in the heavens of the North Stand, the sizable Sheffield Wednesday contingent were on the proverbial cloud nine as they continued to serenade head coach Danny Rohl’s name upon securing their Championship status for another year. They didn’t want to leave. Sunderland supporters couldn’t wait to leave.


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It harboured on the sense of two clubs heading in opposite directions. Two clubs who have almost switched roles since they last met way back in September. On that mid-Autumn evening at Hillsborough, it was Wednesday fans who either left or watched on in dismay as Xisco Munoz oversaw a seventh defeat in their opening nine games upon returning to the Championship. The Spaniard was sacked a week later having failed to win a single game, replaced by the irrepressible German, Rohl.

Since Rohl’s appointment, Wednesday have won 15 of their 35 games to overturn a seven point deficit and avoid relegation with the buffer of the three points almost hand-given to them by Sunderland on the final day. Sunderland, by contrast, have won 10 and lost 18, dropping from fourth in the league table down to 16th in a season where they have lost 22 of their 46 games, just one less than the 23 defeats suffered in the 2017-18 campaign where they were relegated to League One.

We Are Sunderland: Danny Rohl has been linked with the Sunderland head coach vacancy Danny Rohl has been linked with the Sunderland head coach vacancy (Image: Ian Horrocks)

There are, alarmingly, some similarities to that season six years ago.

Sunderland cycled through a number of managers including Simon Grayson and Chris Coleman while also seeing two separate parts of the season under an interim head coach in Robbie Stockdale. There were players who underperformed and question marks as to how the club was being run and whether it was time for change. The difference this season, however, is that it didn’t have to be like that.

The decision made by the club’s hierarchy in December to move on from Tony Mowbray, with Sunderland just three points outside the play-off places, has backfired in the utmost sense. This may not be entirely a rudderless ship at the Stadium of Light, but the mechanics are faltering and perhaps reaching their limit as things have drastically steered off track. Like the old television set that would often require the odd tap on the side in order to function, Sunderland have reached that point where they need a firm tap on the side.

To say Sunderland’s philosophy is outright broken would be a little hyperbole. There remain elements of success in the likes of Jack Clarke, Dan Neil and Chris Rigg to name but a few. But this is a football club which requires plenty of maintenance over the summer in order to be more functional for purpose. That starts from the top.




The line may, mercifully, have been drawn under the 2023-24 campaign after a dreadful second half of the season in 2024, but what happens next is going to be key in just how salvageable things can be.

Players and staff will routinely highlight how there remains plenty to be enthused by regarding Sunderland and how the club goes about its business. Supporters’ frustrations will tell you otherwise.

Sunderland need guidance, they need leadership and they need it swiftly.

Club captain Luke O’Nien held players in the dressing room long after the final whistle at the Stadium of Light as a mini-debrief began, with Mike Dodds often referring to the importance of this idea of ‘reflection’ over the coming weeks and months. Further down the corridor, in the away dressing room, Rohl was being treated to a champagne shower as Sheffield Wednesday’s players and staff celebrated their great escape. Again, the chasm between the mood of the two clubs prevalent.

Sunderland supporters have heard from sporting director Kristjaan Speakman in the past before, during and after seasons. It feels like they need more this time. Since taking majority ownership of the club in 2021, there has been little from Swiss-French businessman Kyril Louis-Dreyfus. It feels as though supporters, players and staff would benefit from his voice now. The club must have direction with its new head coach and a roadmap as to how they get off the beaten track they have put themselves on with a series of erroneous decisions.

We Are Sunderland: Sunderland need clarity from owner Kyril Louis-DreyfusSunderland need clarity from owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus (Image: Ian Horrocks)

For interim head coach Dodds, who may face an element of uncertainty surrounding his future, it’s about actions speaking louder than words over the coming days and weeks.

“I’m not going to speak on behalf of the other people whether it be the ownership group or Kristjaan but, from my perspective, the direction of the club I wouldn’t say is clear because it’s a little bit murky at the moment because we’ve had three head coaches in one season, four if you include me twice, so that makes it a little bit murky. But in terms of the direction, we want to have a certain style of play which I think the fans are completely on board with,” he told We Are Sunderland.

“It’s the style of play which Tony had that was really free-flowing, it was really entertaining to watch.

“We’ll have a little bit more structure out of possession which I feel, in some of my games, we’ve seen that, but the hard bit is obviously trying to find the balance between the two because you want more structure and organisation but it takes away from other areas, it’s always that counterweight in finding a balance between the two.

“The recruitment, in terms of how we recruit, isn’t going to change. The club want players with upside. They want players who have a value but there’s a gap between the value and their ceiling.

“I’ve said previously I do feel we need to recruit a couple more players, not in terms of age. When we talk about experience I’m talking about a couple more players who have a couple of hundred league games under their belt at this level or in and around this level. So I do feel the group need that and we as a club probably need a little bit more depth. So in terms of the direction I understand why it would probably feel a little bit murky at the moment.

“If the club recruit two, three, four players and there’s an identity with those players I think the fans will be onboard and it will very quickly renavigate.

“Obviously the appointment of the head coach is going to be a marker,” he added. “That will speak for itself, much like the recruitment of players will speak for itself.

“I’m not going to speak for other people but I don’t think it needs any kind of statement, as such, but actions speak louder than words. That’s the old phrase, isn’t it? Who’s the new head coach going to be? It’s him. Who are we recruiting in the summer? And your first two or three signings give you a marker.”

We Are Sunderland: Mike Dodds won just two of 13 games during his second spell as Sunderland's interim head coachMike Dodds won just two of 13 games during his second spell as Sunderland's interim head coach (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Rohl, a head coach who has been strongly linked with the vacancy at the Stadium of Light, would not be drawn into speculation on his future at Hillsborough, with further meetings set to take place over the coming days with Sheffield Wednesday chairman Dejphon Chansiri. But there can be no disputing the job the German has performed and why he would have admirers in the Stadium of Light boardroom.

“The last six months have given us a hard, tough journey to come to today. Everybody else won and there was not one millimetre of space [for error],” he said. “We should be very proud of our team and our club. It's not normal to stay in the league when you have just one win in 19 matchdays from the beginning of the season.

"You know what it means to me today, so I will not speak about my future. I want to enjoy and then we will see what we can do, or not. I have had one meeting with the chairman this week and we will then have more meetings as soon as possible and then we will see but it is important that we enjoy this evening. We have to enjoy this and be happy in the moment.”

Rohl joins the likes of Paul Heckingbottom, Rene Maric and Will Still as the leading candidates who have been linked with taking over from Dodds on a permanent basis and yet still we wait.

Sunderland made the decision to appoint Dodds on an interim basis for the second time this season in handing him the final 13 games back in February to allow them the time to carry out their due diligence on a thorough search as to who takes over. Those 13 games have now elapsed with regression the pertinent word to describe what has happened within that timeframe.

The club, the players, the staff and, most importantly, the supporters need clarity on what comes next, something which can only come from the top. Whether that clarity arrives or not, as Dodds suggests, the actions simply must be louder than the words.