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Now Sunderland Must Change Their Image Too

The announcement last night of Sunderland's swathe of new faces is a good start to the rebuilding job on Wearside. Now, to make a further break with the past, the club must look to change the way it presents itself - and end recent years of dreadful PR.

Stu Forster

Sunderland's appointments of Roberto De Fanti and Valentino Angeloni came as little surprise when they were formally announced early yesterday evening. Rumours about the arrival of the former as a Director of Football - the first in the club's history - have swirled around the Internet with increasing permanence for the better part of ten weeks now, while the club's pursuit of the latter to replace Pop Robson as Chief Scout on Wearside had become widely known.

Though the announcement, made with minor fanfare on the official club website, was seen as a mere formality to many, its importance should not be understated. It marks, in every sense, an definitive break with the past.

For years now, the Black Cats have meandered aimlessly when it comes to player recruitment. There has been no sign of a continuous plan. Instead, the club's recruitment process was left entirely in the hands of whomever happened to be occupying the manager's office at any given time.

With the arrival of the two Italians, Ellis Short has looked to shift Sunderland into a more modern way of thinking. Even despite having hired Paolo Di Canio, a man unlikely to bow to the whims of others, Short has outlined that Sunderland will look forward with a clear strategy. No more will the club's priorities shift each time a new manager arrives in the dugout; instead, a permanent transfer ethos will be employed, with the hope of introducing some much needed continuity at the Stadium of Light.

In opting for such a route, Short has also presented Sunderland with an opportunity away from the playing field - one that the club simply cannot afford to ignore.

For all that the club was woeful on the pitch last season, the past year was made all the more galling by Sunderland's inadequacies from a PR standpoint. Just as the players staggered from one crisis to the next with astonishing ineptitude, so too did those behind the scenes, in a term pockmarked with decisions that only served to tarnish the club's public image.

There was the baffling assault on The Fort pub back in October, where a lifelong Sunderland fan was targeted for having the audacity to, you know, show his support for the club. There was the continued purge of those in the South Stand of the Stadium of Light who committed the terrible sin of standing up, despite fellow fans around them being happy for them to do so. And, of course, there was the atrocious handling of fascism-gate, whereby new manager Paolo Di Canio was set upon by a rabid media for his past political comments - a scenario that everyone, barring the club, had seen coming from a mile away.

For whatever reason, Sunderland's public relations have not developed in the way the club itself has sought over recent years. There are good things about the club, many of them (indeed, the Foundation of Light deserves immense credit), yet time and again Sunderland shoot themselves in the foot in both the local and national media. In a world where image has never been so important, this is a major bugbear - and something that should be rectified immediately.

To start, the club's insistence on promoting itself as a media entity of its own accord should cease. New signings should be put in front of the media and allowed to answer questions, allowed to promote the club on their own terms; as opposed to the stage managed and thoroughly dry straight-to-camera pieces that pop up on sporadically.

Having announced the influx of an Italian revolution of sorts, what is the harm in letting the media get a little carried away?

Sunderland fans were the first to criticise when the media bought into the French propaganda spouted some twelve miles up the north east coast at St. James Park, yet local newspapers and the like have little choice but to promote Newcastle United when Sunderland's own PR department are so sparing in what they allow to drift outside the realms of their own control.

Big changes are occurring at the Stadium of Light, and it would be a fool's errand to let that go unnoticed. The low-key announcement of yesterday evening may sit well with those types who ask for little fuss and for the club to go about its business quietly, but sometimes a little bit of shouting does the world of good.

Sunderland fans are perennially cited as some of the nation's best and are an undoubted draw - yet the club's reluctance to sell itself does it interminable harm. Why sign for Sunderland, a player may ask himself, when up the road or elsewhere he can be made to feel like someone the club is happy to showcase? Why be hidden away behind edited videos and carefully managed press releases when he can sit, front and centre, and show genuine enthusiasm for his new club for the whole world to see?

I am not suggesting that, in opening itself up a little, the club will suddenly become successful. That's not how football works. But the sheltered, controlled and almost dictatorial PR tone the club has set in recent years does them few favours either. Indeed, at a club that has for so long held close links to its surrounding community, it renders Sunderland cold and disparate.

In the hirings of De Fanti and Angeloni, along with the imminent influx of a host of new players, Ellis Short and the club's hierarchy have set in motion the wheels of change and brought about a new wave of excitement on Wearside.

It would be an enormous shame if the club, weighed down by its own sense of self-importance, did not do its best to maximise the chance of success.

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