Hugo Boss gilets and chocaholic tendencies: thank you, Tony Mowbray - Sunderland will miss you

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The former Sunderland manager parted company with the Black Cats on Monday.

I don't know who or what I wanted, but it wasn't Tony Mowbray. When Alex Neil, that shellsuit Judas, went out for a pint of milk one Friday afternoon last August and never came back it felt like something akin to the end of the world on Wearside. The meteors were crashing all around and Sunderland had put their faith in a dinosaur.

Mowbray, in the dazed wake of such a disenchanting low blow, felt like a lacklustre cliche of an appointment - a sticking plaster and a wet flannel hastily administered to the simultaneous stresses of heartbreak and headache. How very, very wrong I was.

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When Sunderland were promoted to the Championship last summer, most supporters, myself included, would have settled for a mid-table finish. After their Wembley saviour decided he wanted to go all Patrick Swayze in Ghost and to try his hand at some particularly messy pottery with Stoke City, many would have settled for survival. Instead, Mowbray, hamstrung by injuries and the pressures of a crippling Jaffa Cake addiction, took the Black Cats to the brink of promotion.

It is no hyperbole to suggest that the 2022/23 campaign might well represent the most fun that I have ever had as a Sunderland fan. There was this wild, joyous optimism to every breakneck chicane, an unspoken recognition of the improbability of wonder. Mowbray and his travelling circus of kindergarten wizards had no right to get anywhere near those play-offs, and yet as the season progressed, onwards they stumbled, giddy and brazen, propelled by the fearless naivety of youth and a style of play gorged on aesthetic vitality. At times it felt like witnessing an unfancied game show contestant muddle their way to the jackpot question, at others like watching a disoriented field trip accidentally discover the lost city of El Dorado. It was one part Slumdog Millionaire and one part Lord of the Flies, with an added dash of The Goonies sprinkled in for good measure.

And Mowbray did it all in the face of overwhelming odds against him. At certain times last season, Sunderland's injury woes were so severe that they bordered on the tragicomic. If it wasn't Ross Stewart and his rice paper ligaments, it was the entirety of the defensive unit and their various farcical maladies. By the time the Black Cats travelled to Kenilworth Road to face Luton Town in a play-off semi-final second leg, they were held together with little more than wads of chewing gum and the power of dreams. Seeing Mowbray shepherd them off their team coach that fateful evening brought to mind Gandalf leading Bilbo and the dwarves into the Battle of the Five Armies.

Perhaps if Sunderland had been able to field more than one actual defender in that match, or if they had been blessed with anybody capable of properly contesting an aerial bombardment from the brutish might of the Hatters, things may have been wholly different. Alas, they were not, and they fell agonisingly close; a second Mackem invasion of Trafalagar Square in as many years would prove to be one minor miracle too far.

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Since then, things have soured at an alarming rate. Murmurs of discontentment between the dugout and the boardroom have greased the wheels of petty speculation, a quartet of blunted strikers have done little to ease a simmering sense of frustration, and a sudden and damaging slump in form has essentially sounded the death knell on a tenure that many feel to have ended cruelly and prematurely. But regardless of the din, I would like to say thank you.

Thank you, Tony Mowbray, for making me embarrassed to have ever doubted you. Thank you for taking a tricky job at a thankless time and ensuring that not one single person on Wearside thought about Alex Neil ever again. Thank you for injecting a brand of attacking football into this glittering, precocious side, the likes of which most Sunderland fans had forgotten even existed. Thank you for that goal at Reading, and that last gasp Boxing Day winner against Blackburn Rovers that ignited dormant beliefs and contributed significantly to my two-day hangover.

Thank you for nurturing the best out of Amad Diallo, and for getting the Locomotion by Kylie Minogue stuck in my head for weeks on end. Thank you for taking us to within a whisker of an FA Cup upset over Fulham, and for always wearing that Hugo Boss gilet that makes it look as if you dress yourself based on nominative determinism. Thank you for your chocaholic tendencies, and for reminding me how good Revels are. Thank you for being measured and patient and thoroughly decent, and for giving us all those three days in May during which we tentatively fantasised about the Premier League once again. Thank you, Tony Mowbray, for everything. You will be dearly missed.

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