The Insight: Michael Beale’s battle to win over the Sunderland fans

 | February 01 | 

8 mins read

stadium of light sunderland

For the past few weeks you might have seen a particular hashtag trending on X, and it still doesn’t feel right not being called Twitter. 

Anyway, back to the point. #BealeOut has consistently been ranking high on the social media platform’s trends list, and no, it has nothing to do with Eastenders icon Ian.

It is because a large chunk of Sunderland fans are already wanting rid of their new manager Michael Beale.

Sunderland Markets

  • Sunderland to be promoted - 12/1
  • Jack Clarke Championship top scorer - 12/1
  • Sunderland to beat Middlesbrough - 13/5

Beale has been in the job for just 45 days after replacing Tony Mowbray on December 18. Mowbray was a popular figure on Wearside after spending 15 months with the Black Cats, whom he led to the Championship play-off semi-finals in 2022-23.

He was the man to steady the ship at the Stadium of Light after the mastermind behind Sunderland’s escape from League One, Alex Neil, decided to make the switch to Stoke City, a move that did not go as well as he would have liked.

Renowned for his work with young players and pedigree at this level, Mowbray exceeded all expectations with Sunderland last season and had them in a strong position again this year before his departure (ninth, three points off the play-offs).

Many fans were bemused by his exit, despite just two wins in his final nine matches. But it had been painted that Mowbray had a different perspective to that of the club hierarchy in owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and sporting director Kristjaan Speakman.

So off he went and, just as when any club parts with a manager, there was a frenzy of speculation as to who his replacement would be. This is where Beale started facing an uphill battle. 

Sunderland to be promoted at 12/1

Sunderland were linked with a swoop for Reims’ 31-year-old tactician Will Still. You know, the man who led the French club to a 17-game unbeaten run without his pro licence last season, for which his club was fined €22,000 each time he was in the dugout.

With a promising young coach being touted, the Mackems were excited, and many became convinced he was going to be their next manager. Football fans can be very stubborn once they get an idea in their head, and that is exactly what has happened here.

The Still rumours came to nought, with the two clubs reportedly unable to agree a compensation fee. Then came the links to Beale, the man who had been out of work since October after being let go by Scottish giants Rangers.

The job at Ibrox was one he couldn’t turn down, leaving Queens Park Rangers after less than six months in west London during which time the R’s briefly led the Championship. But at Rangers, he found what many before him had: that it is a difficult job to keep unless you are beating Celtic continuously.

Sunderland fans saw this route through the management world as an unconvincing one, leaving Beale with a mountain to climb before his feet were even under the table. He has taken charge of only seven games so far in the second tier and has yielded 10 points (three wins, one draw, four defeats). This leaves him with an average of 1.43 points per game.

Interestingly, this betters Mowbray’s figure after his first seven matches with the Black Cats (1.29). The former coach picked up a point less than Beale despite having fewer defeats (two) and more draws (three). You just have to look at what Mowbray went on to achieve to realise that this agenda against Beale so early into his tenure is obscene.

He has come into a group he is unfamiliar with and is still getting to know on a one-to-one basis, while trying to implement his ideas with a very young squad - the youngest in the league with an average age of 22.6 (of the 30 players they have used this season) [transfermarkt].

Only five members of the squad are over 25. There were six but Alex Pritchard has just completed a move to Birmingham City to reunite with Mowbray after he refused to play for the Black Cats last weekend against Stoke City. It was believed that Speakman was reluctant to hand the midfielder the two-year contract the player wanted for security for his family, causing the drama of the last few days.

Jack Clarke Championship top scorer at 12/1

Fans were annoyed at how both parties handled the situation but it isn’t the first time that Speakman has come under fire, and perhaps all the anger Beale is receiving is as a result of deflected ire. It was Speakman’s and Louis-Dreyfus' decision to sack Mowbray, but with Beale being the face of this unpopular change, the supporters are venting their disdain at him.

Even though Sunderland are in a strong position in the league, fans have been agitated throughout the campaign due to the club’s transfer business. They sold star striker Ross Stewart for £10m to Southampton, which for an injury-prone player was an exceptional deal.

However, the team remains without an experienced centre-forward, which many believe is what will hold them back this year and moving forward. It was a problem for Mowbray (due to Stewart’s collection of injuries) and it remains an issue for Beale. They feel that the club either has no money to spend on such a prized asset or they are just unwilling to spend the money they received for Stewart.

In the January transfer window, although they lost Pritchard, Sunderland bolstered their ranks with Leo Hjelde (defender, 20) from Leeds United, and Romaine Mundle (winger, 20) from Standard Liege. More exciting youth prospects, but not the experience you would be looking for to help drive your promotion push in the second half of the campaign.

Of course, Sunderland’s model is to bring in young talent, develop them and then turn a profit. But whether this model can be successful both on the business and football sides remains to be seen. 

The Black Cats have an estimated wage bill of £9.15m per annum [Capology], ranking them as the fourth-lowest in the division, highlighting that they are indeed punching above their weight right now in comparison to their division rivals. So for them to be in the play-off picture again is truly remarkable, particularly with such a youthful and inexperienced squad.

Beale may still be a diamond in the rough when it comes to management, but his pedigree as a coach cannot be questioned. We saw how important he was to Steven Gerrard at Rangers when he was his assistant, with the pair first working together in the Liverpool academy. Beale has also worked within Chelsea’s youth set-up as well as out in Brazil with Sao Paulo.

Sunderland to win at 13/5

But for now some fans are unwilling to give him time to get his ideas across on Wearside. Popular Sunderland podcast Wise Men Say ran a poll on X on January 20, asking whether the manager should stay or go, and 91.4% of 3,964 voters were in favour of him leaving the club.

The Sunderland boss has tried to block out the noise, but he’s only human and things like that will get under your skin. The one thing he has done that hasn’t helped his case with the Mackems is his comments last week when he fought back: “I can’t change my accent or where I am from. I am proud of where I am from.” That impassioned defence may only escalate the rift between himself and the supporters trying to hound him out.

However, he did make some interesting points in the same explosive interview, saying that he wasn’t the one who handed Mowbray his P45, and that the team’s form wasn’t great ahead of the club making the decision - as in pretty much any other sacking in the history of the sport.

He also made a good point about the fans throwing negativity at a team that doesn't deserve it, which is true given their position in the table and the fact they are just a point outside the play-offs. 

In Beale’s first game, a 3-0 home defeat to Coventry City, his side had 60% possession and 20 efforts on goal to the Sky Blues’ 10. Cutting edge in the final third was the difference, and it comes back to the team not having an experienced forward to spearhead the attack.

As he spends more time on the training ground with his players, the more they will understand his ideas, which will help them translate to the pitch. He even stated that his young squad are “getting older every day” and that the club is investing in their future, which they are hoping will help that of Sunderland’s.

For a club that has spent seven years outside of the Premier League and four of them in League One, there is no rush for them to get back to the big time. And surely the fans will want them to be in the strongest position possible when they do return, so that they can maintain that top-flight status for many years?

That appears to be the club’s plan, but Sunderland fans are currently having a hard time seeing that and it is Beale getting it in the neck less than seven weeks after arriving in the city. The 43-year-old is discovering that being a manager is not just about wins and losses, it is also about absorbing the disgruntlement of a fanbase. Whoever is to blame.

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