In the wake of David Moyes’ departure from the Stadium of Light following relegation, and treacherous financial waters to navigate, Sunderland must now appoint a manager capable of restoring pride and belief amid a cloud of uncertainty.
The latest accounts show that the club are more than £100M in debt; a reduction of over £20M, yet still a staggering amount. The financial riches on offer in the Premier League are vital to a club in Sunderland’s position; those in the Championship are incomparable.
Times will be tough for Sunderland. A significant reduction in income will invariably impact the budgets for the forthcoming season; James Hunter has reported that "there is simply no budget available".
Therefore, the ideal candidate to replace Moyes should be able to; stabilise the club; work within financial restrictions; and develop and work with younger players.
The next managerial appointment is vital; perhaps the most important decision that Ellis Short and co. will make in a long time. In that regard, championing a relative rookie with just 73 games under his belt sounds like madness. But Barnsley's Paul Heckingbottom stands out as a strong candidate for the role.
Not yet 40, the former defender has been described as one of the brightest young managers in England, leading The Tykes to a Football League Trophy victory, League One Play-Off Final victory, and the club's highest league finish since 1999/2000. Heckingbottom started his professional career at Sunderland, and despite making no appearances, his time at the club is likely to have provided him with a pre-existing understanding of its culture and its position within the community. He understands that the "attachment that the fans have with the players [at Barnsley] is crucial," and will appreciate the same connection that fans crave at Sunderland.
The uncertainty surrounding the club's financial future, and indeed that of Short himself, is likely to deter some managers. On the other hand, the fact remains that Sunderland are a big club, and will be one of the biggest in the Championship. The chance to manage a club of this size, with the facilities available to the new manager, will prove an attractive proposition for some; a chance to step up. The manner in which Heckingbottom has spoken about the situation at Barnsley makes it seem unlikely that Sunderland's would deter him.
Perhaps most importantly, he has shown an ability to manage a club with limited financial resources, something that should resonate with the Sunderland hierarchy. Therefore, the club's financial restrictions are unlikely to deter him from the job. He explained Barnsley's situation to fcbusiness magazine in February:
Literally every penny counts. The difficulty we face is keeping hold of players, putting even more money in and building to get on the next level. So we have to be cute in how we use contracts to tie players down and maximise the value of each player when we sell them. That money then needs to be reinvested in the right way.
We know we are not on a level playing field. Our budget will be the lowest in the Championship. We have a small squad and a small coaching staff. We are playing against teams who have individual players on more money a week than our entire group of players combined. That is the difficulty we face, but we try to maximise what we have and get the most out of it.
Rather than dwell on their financial situation, Heckingbottom has shown a belief in the players at his disposal and a determination to extract the maximum results from his resources. He is pragmatic, yet totally confident in the club's abilities:
We use that as a positive. We try to maximise everything that our situation can give us. It can give us hunger, it can give us drive. So we try to use our circumstances to our advantage and then pick a young, hungry team that will reinforce this attitude on the pitch with the fans buying in too. Therefore it is all about aligning everything - every decision and everything we are trying to do - to complement each-other towards the bigger picture. Because that is the only way we are going to compete.
We use that underdog tag to our advantage and we try to thrive on it. We will keep striving to be bigger and better regardless of the limited money we can bring in.
Compare that to David Moyes' attitude towards his playing squad... Despite these limitations, Heckingbottom led Barnsley to a 14th place finish in their return to the Championship with a net profit of £9.3M. Key players Alfie Mawson, James Bree, Sam Winnall and Conor Hourihane all departed during the course of the season. Yet they still exceeded expectations.
Barnsley's budgetary constraints dictated that Heckingbottom would be forced to rely heavily on young players. The squad's average age was just 23 as a result; only Sevilla Atletico owned a younger squad across the top five 'second' divisions. The squad's relative lack of experience makes their 14th place finish even more impressive. He told fcbusiness magazine:
We planned to get out of that division by recruiting young, hungry players. We tried to coach these lads well and provide a good environment where they could improve and prosper. As a club, we got our reward by getting that right and winning promotion. Therefore the business model to improve the squad is still exactly the same as it was last season in League One.
It [youth development] is very important for several reasons. We've had good profits over recent years from our academy. Not only in selling players on, but we can get good value from our young players if we have four, five or six of them contributing in the first team squad. That can save us money in the long run and the saving can be reinvested elsewhere in the squad. So not only do we want to develop our own lads to sell on, we want to develop them to contribute to matchdays, to contribute to first team squads and be part of the numbers which will help us keep our budget down.
Considering Sunderland 's financial situation, the next manager is likely to have to lean on young players, either from the academy or via the loan market. The club's youngsters enjoyed a strong campaign in the Premier League International Cup, and despite ultimately being well beaten by Porto, their achievements in reaching the final should not be underestimated and suggests that there is some talent at the club. As a former development squad manager, and someone who has extensively worked with youngsters, Heckingbottom is likely to possess the knowledge and ability to help nurture these talents. John Stones, Mason Holgate and Bree have all been sold as Barnsley academy graduates; an ability to develop and sell young players would certainly ease the financial burden on Sunderland.
The likes of Sam Gallagher and Tom Lawrence enjoyed promising loan campaigns in the Championship, and Sunderland should look to target this type of player to supplement those already at the club. Selling the club to both player and parent club is vital. Ryan Kent, who spent last season on loan at Barnsley, told LFCTV:
“There were numerous clubs interested in taking me on loan at the start of the season, but after speaking to Paul Heckingbottom about what his philosophies are and how he wanted the team to play football, my mind was made up. I was impressed by what he had planned for me and developing my career. That really fitted in with what I needed to do around my identity as a football player.”
Heckingbottom seems able to sell a club and his ideas for a particular player to that person. This is not reserved only for young players. Matty James, injured during Leicester's historic Premier League win, described how the manager ignored those injuries, instead speaking of how the club could help James to get back to the level that he was playing at two years ago. James knew that Barnsley was the "perfect club" for him. Convincing a player to join Sunderland, despite financial limitations, should prove to be easier, but that ability to persuade potential targets and make them feel welcome should not be overlooked.
Heckingbottom is currently employed on a 12 month rolling contract, so any compensation should be affordable, particularly with David Moyes leaving Wearside without any. He is an inexperienced manager, admittedly, but David Wagner and Jaap Stam are too. His signing would represent a gamble, and no single appointment will guarantee success, but he seems like a good fit for this club.
Sunderland need a change in culture; a young, hungry manager who is capable of working on a tight budget and developing young players. With the likes of Wagner, Stam, Garry Monk and Slavisa Jokanovic unlikely targets, Paul Heckingbottom ticks those boxes and represents a strong candidate for the job. Leaving Barnsley - where he was born, played, and now managed - may prove difficult, but the opportunity to manage Sunderland, despite the club's struggles, may be too good to turn down.