Sunderland and Blackburn Rovers may be moving in opposite directions on England’s footballing ladder, but Tony Mowbray’s side may provide the deflated Black Cats with the perfect template for revival.
Not since 2013 when Wolverhampton Wanderers, hampered by a Mick McCarthy hangover and some Stale Solbakken inanity, had a side been relegated from the Premier League and fallen instantly through the second trapdoor.
Sunderland, however, benchmark specialists for spectacular collapse, succumbed to their second-consecutive drop with a 2-1 defeat to Burton Albion on Saturday, and may top the achievements of their Black County counterparts should they, as expected, finish bottom for the second season running.
But, coming the other way are Blackburn Rovers – relegated the same year as Wolves and, after four seasons of indifference from the ownership, faltering performances on the pitch, and detachment from fans, eventually ended up stumbling into League One on the final day of last season.
Blackburn’s case can be encouraging for the Stadium of Light higher-ups next season, though, as thanks to repairing the fan relationship, rebuilding the squad smartly, and some eventual investment from the disinterested Venky’s Group, the Blue and Whites finally feel like a club on the up.
Tony Mowbray’s tireless effort is to thank. It can be difficult to attribute such an upturn to one man, but his position as the public face of the club has restored faith and a rapport with the Ewood Park faithful.
The atmosphere is massively different around the place, evident in the upswing in Blackburn’s end-of-season form.
Just once in the past 32 games have they tasted defeat, away at Plymouth back in February, and the fix in form from December, when they sat 10th, has left the club in fine fettle.
Mowbray admitted himself he had a long discussion with his players after the mid-season 1-0 loss to Oldham, telling BBC Radio Lancashire; “The Oldham game changed the way we played.
“We had to be more positive in this league and stop letting teams that weren’t as good or had as good players as us have too much of the ball against us.
“After 12 games we were well behind Wigan and Shrewsbury so in the last 30-odd games we accrued a lot of points. We stepped higher up the pitch and started scoring a lot of goals and that’s given us confidence.”
Confidence flows around the team at the moment. Captain Charlie Mulgrew has scored 14 goals this campaign, a terrific total for most strikers, let alone a central defender.
The ex-Celtic man has the freedom to step up and support the midfield in Mowbray’s 4-4-1-1, while full-backs Ryan Nyambe and Irishman Derrick Williams both bomb forward quick to support when Blackburn turn over the ball.
They enjoy getting balls into the box, where 32-year-old Danny Graham has been a revitalising force in the second half of this season – his best in terms of goals since 2011, with 17 in total – while the hard-working, aggressive Bradley Dack has eighteen goals from the number ten position.
Dack was their most expensive signing of the summer at a relatively-modest £750,000 from Gillingham, but whether it’s feeding off of target man Graham or charging into space stretched by Dominic Samuel, the 23-year-old has driven Blackburn going forward this season.
Dack has best exemplified their counter-attacking approach, and deservedly taken home the League One Player of the Year award this season.
Defensively, Blackburn have been solid all campaign. David Raya has a bright future ahead of him in goal, and both Paul Dowling and Dunboyne’s Darragh Lenihan have performed well as the stopper beside the more-expansive Mulgrew.
Corry Evans and Richard Smallwood in midfield have formed a tireless screen, doing the heaviest of the defensive lifting, especially to cover the runs of the full-backs and one of Marcus Antonsson or Adam Armstrong on the left side of midfield.
They function well together, look Championship ready, and can still win the League One title should results go their way and against Wigan Athletic this weekend.
Most importantly, the belief is back at Blackburn after eight years under the Venky’s – and The Black Cats could learn a lot from the restoration of the former Premier League winners.
The key with Mowbray is communication. With the owners away from Ewood, the former West Brom boss has not just helped his own reputation – built on success at Hibernian and especially the Baggies, but tarnished by lukewarm spells at Celtic and Middlesborough – but the club, building a feeling of upward motion after years of impending doom.
Sunderland are in ruins, on the pitch, in the boardroom, in the accounts, in almost every facet, but in Chris Coleman they possess a brave public face who is willing to fight for his job and for the club.
Coleman is not afraid to make a harsh decision or two, and attempt to be honest and open with a troubled fanbase desperately looking for answers from an apathetic, absentee ownership, just like Mowbray.
And while a sense of inevitability about the second successive relegation did not always exist, with a top-half finish most people’s conservative estimates at the start of the season, Simon Grayson’s disastrous tenure set in motion the demise that Coleman is currently presiding over.
This is eerily similarly to how Mowbray came in at Blackburn and actually came incredibly close to saving the club from their doomed state under Owen Coyle.
Ultimately, Coleman is not to blame for the dark clouds hanging over the Stadium of Light, and some serious work needs to be done over the summer, but the former Wales boss looks at the turnarounds at both Rovers and Wigan for inspiration.
“I think there is enough young talent to do this, and this is Sunderland,” he said.
“No disrespect to League One, I think we can still attract good enough players to make a difference and to get us heading in the right direction. Even if it is League One, Blackburn have just done it, Wigan – it can be done.
“I went to Blackburn as manager of Wales in the Championship to look at players, they were sliding, the atmosphere wasn’t very good, it was awful, they were relegated. This year you go there and it is a different place, a positive, winning team.
“They lost 12 or 14 players and brought in 10-12 new ones. It can be done.”
Rebuilding in League One is significantly less expensive than in the Championship, and Sunderland should have the name value to attract big names relative to that level.
Added to that, the club’s stellar youth record with the likes of Joel Asoro, Josh Maja, and Lynden Gooch, as well as 22-year-old Paddy McNair who came in from Manchester United, and the situation is not as bad as initial fears would have anyone believe.
The concerning financial situation at the club is replicated somewhat at Blackburn, with both Ellis Short and the Venky’s finding their investments in hundreds of millions of pounds in debt.
One good season, particularly in the third-tier, is not going to allay that – as well as concerns with big wage players, who have no clause dictating they must take a pay cut when falling into League one.
However, a new-look Sunderland, fresh off a promotion charge, would provide a much more attractive prospect for potential suitors, and if buyers can be found for the likes of Lamine Kone, Wahbi Khazri, and Jack Rodwell, there should be money available with which to rebuild.
Coleman, despite presiding over a win percentage of just 19%, has been praised for his honesty and directness with the fans, the media, and the owner, Ellis Short.
It may sound obvious but the sooner Sunderland put this season behind them, the better. For it is not all doom and gloom for the North-East club. Blackburn Rovers showed them this season that, despite financial worries, certain things can help to build a positive future; a strong manager, a good regeneration of the squad, and old-fashioned hard-graft and honesty.
If given the time, Wearside fans can expect a swift return to the second tier under Chris Coleman. Whether he will be given it or not, only time will tell.
Alex Dunne, Pundit Arena.