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Sunderland’s Latest Data-Driven Football Chief Needs To Display Something The Last Lot Did Not

Sunderland have appointed their first Chief Football Officer - and it's not strictly a Director of Football role, so some comparisons with De Fanti and Congerton may be unfair. But, new man Simon Wilson can learn some lessons from those who went before him.

Sunderland v Fulham - FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Simon Wilson will arrive at the Stadium of Light on the first day of the January transfer window. His behind will barely touch his new seat before he’s immersed into the desperately significant business of locating a few choice bodies who can add some quality to an eager but limited Sunderland squad.

The Manchester City man will occupy a brand new role at the club - providing the link between manager David Moyes, Chief Executive Martin Bain and the club's academy and football performance functions.

Indeed, the timing could not be more perfect in illustrating the immediate task at hand. David Moyes’ team equipped themselves well at Anfield on Saturday, but a new found defensive resolution could not hide the deficiencies in the squad and the end result was a hard-fought but ultimately fruitless afternoon.

The two most talented attacking midfielders in the squad begun the game on the bench. And if Adnan Januzaj got fifteen minutes or so against Liverpool, Wahbi Khazri must be wondering what he has to do to get a go at an opponent.

Because both men remain limited – Januzaj by his attitude and Khazri by his, sometimes, kamikaze approach to ball retention which surely puts the fear of god into David Moyes.

And there the sparks of greatness in the squad largely end. Sunderland's perpetual issues with recruitment and maximising potential are well-documented. The rest of the outfield squad, bar the innate genius that is Jermain Defoe, are hard-working industrious sorts mixed with those with potential. And that is why Sunderland are where they are.

But more than that – identifying, recruiting and retaining talent is only part of Wilson’s new remit at Sunderland. The two, perhaps three, men who have occupied a similar position at the club have all been flawed and all failed. A leadership is required to enthuse supporters and observers that this club is on the right lines. Take the men who have gone before.

Roberto De Fanti was only in the job ten months. Reputedly he met Sunderland owner, Ellis Short, on a golf course and the rest is history. The results of his disastrous summer spree in 2013 have since taken subsequent managers a concerted effort to clear out the rubbish he brought in. Budget restraints aside, there really is no excuse for having spent money on the likes of Cabral, Mavrias and Jozy Altidore.

Lee Congerton succeeded De Fanti having convinced Short to buy into a data-driven dream that was never as successful as its protagonists made out. Congerton had made his name at HSV Hamburg under former Chelsea Sporting Director, Frank Arnesen. The dream-team proclaimed they would revolutionise the Bundesliga also-rans, but having flirted with relegation twice in their three-year stint, the experiment was quickly binned.

Whatever Congerton thought of his abilities, it soon became clear he was way out of his depth. There was a couple of interviews with the BBC, but he generally kept a low profile only occasionally appearing in public to lower the expectations of fans who asked him if the club could begin to make progress. The signings conducted on his watch fared poorly. For every Fabio Borini there was a Jordi Gomez and an Ignacio Scocco.

Some give Congerton the credit for swapping Altidore for Defoe. The truth is, Defoe wanted to come home and Altidore needed an escape route to America from his Premier League humiliation. If Congerton greased the wheels to enable it, this was no grand act of genius on his part.

We can deal with Ryan Sachs swiftly as the man who transcended the Congerton and De Fanti experiments. The Boston graduate in Psychology and Law was appointed as club secretary and assistant to di Fanti in 2013. He then assumed the title of Football Operations Director once Lee Congerton was put on gardening leave.

But, Sam Allardyce wanted rid of the administrator who occupied the only challenge to his position of total control so Sachs was gone in July, ironically just a few weeks before Big Sam followed him out of the door, but for wholly different reasons.

So, Simon Wilson is welcome. Manchester City established themselves as the global leader of football analytics and technical coaching soon after the Sheikh Mansour-led consortium transformed the Moss Side club into one of the world’s richest in 2008.

The budget for transfer fees quickly became astronomical at City and the game’s finest brains were brought in to make sure it was spent wisely. But Simon Wilson was in Manchester before that - from the time City were the poor relations to United, so he has a suitable grounding in clubs like ours with struggles to compete in the world’s elite league.

In an interview with the Financial Times in 2012, Wilson said of the project to turn the Maine Road also-rans into an Etihad intelligence-centre:

We’ve had to make Manchester City an attractive proposition to the world’s best players. That was a challenge. We’re also challenged by the fact that Madrid, Barcelona and London are more desirable places to live than Manchester.

And whilst not on the same scale, Sunderland as a city and a football club can certainly relate to that. The City project was about paying global stars sufficiently to be attracted to the Etihad but also getting the best performance from youngsters and foreign players plunged into an alien environment.

The resonance is clear to see – think Sunderland of 2016 – an unattractive proposition to talent but with an as yet unfulfilled base – Pickford, Gooch, Watmore, Ndong, coupled with young loan signings – Denayer and Januzaj. All under the age of 23 and all with promise as yet to be realised.

Wilson will undoubtedly be faced with a huge task. The last ‘data director’ displayed zero leadership and others have been plonked in roles way beyond their capabilities. Ellis Short appears to have wised up – Martin Bain has led a swift but dramatic backroom revolution.

Now the backroom has been swept clean, next on his agenda may be the inner chamber of directors and those closest to Short. But, it appears that Wilson's role will not be as a board member. The title Chief Football Officer tells us that much; this is not a role of Director. And perhaps that is a positive – the role will be crucial but away from the drama of the boardroom which controls the club.

Simon Wilson must quickly learn from the failings of his predecessors. Sunderland AFC can afford no passengers, no fluff and no fat. Intelligent leadership is only way, with results the only reward expected.

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