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One of the joys of covering Scottish football in the mid-2000s was the chance to watch Tony Mowbray's Hibernian in full flow. They were a dynamic, fast-running, free-scoring force that made trips to Easter Road immensely good fun. After one such game against Motherwell, I speculated on the make-up of the Hibs line-up and wondered in print if the squad gathered might be representing Scotland at the 2010 World Cup. Of course, Craig Levein's side failed to make it to South Africa but the prophesying wasn't completely off-kilter. Gary Caldwell, Steven Whittaker, Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Gary O'Connor, Derek Riordan and Steven Fletcher would all go on to wear the navy jersey and all would leave the club for big money moves.

That vintage Hibs team comes to mind now because of what people are suddenly saying about Sunderland. Mowbray took over at the Stadium of Light following the departure of Alex Neil to Stoke City at the end of August. It was an appointment that raised some eyebrows. Not least in his own household. Mowbray, a Middlesbrough legend who served the club as both player and manager, joked at the time of his unveiling: “I’m delighted to be here, I have to say though my 13-year-old son who sits in the south stand at the Riverside Stadium isn’t too happy, but he will come around I’m sure.”

But there were also question marks surrounding his suitability for the job: he had endured an indifferent time at Blackburn Rovers in the Championship, albeit he had secured the Lancastrian club's promotion from League One in 2018. He inherited a Sunderland side that had just been promoted themselves and the 59-year-old was tasked with securing a mid-table finish. That target was made considerably harder when he lost the free-scoring Ross Stewart, once of Ross County, to an Achilles injury in January. The Scotland centre-forward had scored 10 goals in 13 games up to that point but Mowbray improvised and made use of the other substantial tools at his disposal so much so that a play-off place was secured at the expense of his old club Blackburn on the final day of the Championship season.


Despite a playing career as a hard-nosed centre-half, Mowbray's tactics as a manager have tended to contradict that image, producing a playing style that is more bugle-wielding, military charge than backs-to-the-wall, rearguard action. His time at Celtic was instantly forgettable but it should be remembered that he got the job at Parkhead following his efforts at West Brom, where he secured promotion in 2007 and with it the League Managers' Association manager of the year award (to add the Scottish Football Writers award he won at Hibs in 2005). He has arrived at Sunderland in a similar situation to the one he first found at Easter Road.

In Amad Diallo, he has a player who had been rated one of Europe's most exciting prior to his arrival at Manchester United. The winger had not had the most productive or enjoyable spells at Rangers in the second half of last season but his time at Sunderland has been in direct contrast to that dismal period. The 20-year-old has scored 13 goals in 37 Championship matches and has been ably backed up by a couple of other starlets who fell on hard times. Patrick Roberts, no stranger to Celtic fans and those of other SPFL teams, had lost his way after returning to Manchester City only to have his career resuscitated at the Stadium of Light. Then there are the two Spurs rejects – Jack Clarke and Alex Pritchard – who have helped create a pacy, attacking quartet that is among the best in the division registering 32 goals and 27 assists between them. Clarke was a £10m signing from Leeds who never quite caught fire at Tottenham while Pritchard once played in the same Spurs youth team as Harry Kane and was rated equal the prospect.

Tonight at 8pm, Sunderland face Luton Town in the Championship play-off semi-final with a place against Middlesbrough or Coventry City in the final up for grabs.

Should they achieve promotion, however, it might not be enough to save Mowbray's job with reports circulating that the RB Salzburg coach Matthias Jaissle is being lined up to replace him this summer whatever happens in the coming weeks. It would be incredibly harsh on Mowbray if owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus did pull the trigger. But you sense that he might just shrug his shoulders and wait until the next club with a group of young talents who need moulding comes along.