Four years ago, Roberto De Fanti successfully lured Ellis Short into proactively transforming his business approach to football club management at Sunderland AFC. Transfer activity and player expenditure would become the responsibility of a Sporting Director, while all on-pitch matters remained the priority of the coaching staff. The need for a 'Manager' was surplus.
The ideology behind such a drastic change in operations was rooted in Chairman Short’s need to oversee a financially secure and long-term investment at this club, to set the path for decades of future success at Sunderland.
So here we are, four years later, wallowing in exactly what future came of that. And whether it is again Ellis Short or Derek McInnes or a German consortium; why would any ever gamble on that failed business model (twice!) here on Wearside? Well, because relegation, and because occasionally there’s the suitable time or there’s the only time; now is the latter.
For any newbies, this disastrous business approach is better known today as the Udinese model, coined by and for Udinese Calcio; a club at ease in Serie A, on half of our budget and half of our stadium capacity.
Their not-even-a-secret secret: buy low, sell high, stay competitive, repeat. It has been the envy of clubs like Sunderland for nearly twenty years.
As luckless as this approach was for Ellis Short four years ago, there were nonetheless many multitudes of reasons why. However, a simplified understanding of Udinese’s flourishing system – and with a coordinated team in unison to act prosperously upon it – could bring about the durable revolution supporters have sought after for so long.
Firstly, there is our club’s approach to recruitment. The prior discouragement of “bosman” tag signings, the nationality-or-league-specific acquisitions, or of the redundant leftovers of upper and elite clubs would be done away with entirely. This was the constantly gaffe dump made seasonally by De Fanti and Lee Congerton respectively; their failure to differentiate an affordably shrewd acquisition with a cheap, reactive good-on-paper purchase (see: Cabral).
To date, only one player has emerged as a success story from Sunderland’s effort at buying economically and soar-selling: Patrick van Aanholt, bought for £1.62 million, and sold for nearly seven times the amount at £10.3 million. It shows that, even within the confines of doomed mismanagement, this system can reap rewards.
Admittedly ten million of any currency is pennies in today’s market of football unreality, but discovering superstar talent is not wholly the priority of pace-setters, Udinese, either.
Yes, the “Zebrette” did unearth one Alexis Sánchez and, yes, the club did receive a fortune from FC Barcelona for his services – that is their illustrious success story. But the ideology of this business model is not dependent on the discovery of one great but on the emergence of many good - names such as Mehdi Benatia, Antonio Candreva, Juan Cuadrado and Asamoah Gyan.
These second-tier-type players are mostly just one well-managed academy away from becoming efficient footballers as they enter their early twenties. We know where they are: the Eredivisie, Argentine Primera División, Ekstraklasa, Zweite Bundesliga, et al. These leagues are brimming with youthful talent waiting for that opportunity to play in England, and even financially inept clubs like ours can still compete with their wages.
And that reduction in pay demands on the pitch will inevitably allow for further investment where this business approach matters most: in the recruitment process.
The accomplishments of talent scouts and mediators, so generally undervalued, must be brought to the forefront of our outlay. Our commendably-wide scale of scouting needs to be improved upon: expand our network, reach out to those lesser-scouted nations where football is rich in its history, credibility and popularity; but otherwise lack financial presence or international publicity.
There is no particular market we should settle on anymore. As Udinese’s way shows - it is more than just procuring suitable players. It’s about having a reach that covers enough ground, that we can sign potentially excellent players long before other clubs even know they exist. After that, it all comes down to training.
As inconsistent as our academy tends to be, there’s already enough evidence to suggest that our graduates can become, at worst, competent and, at best, first team nationals. Hell, we are about to sell a home-grown goalkeeper for £30 million! The Academy of Light is this close to being incredibly special, and an extra flow of funding could be crucial to our club’s future.
But, we would need more. Because if we are to bring in young players from around the globe we would need our club to implement a process of cultural integration (so to speak). Udinese oozes pride in its community; blatantly, so that new arrivals – regardless of their personal career agendas – respect the club and its supporters enough to recognise how this system works. Udinese exists for the player to grow, and the player is there for Udinese to retain its status. That foundation of reverence can be set here, too, at Sunderland. And it should be - for too long have we had to endure the established indifference within our player culture here.
It’s also about man-management within that coaching staff, to ensure that young players are not dispirited by aborted development. Recently we have seen a tally of youth arrive at Sunderland off the back of gunpowder potential, and leave with a poor attitude and their talent irresponsibly wasted.
This is so important too. It’s all evident that investment into coaching, training, and medical support creates a cycle of all-encompassing benefit, and is especially prevalent in preparing for those inevitable affluent sales. Succession planning, as it were, is an efficient phase of Udinese’s blueprint. When a player is performing to a consistently high standard, their replacement is already in the works.
For example, if that were Sunderland today, we would have had Jordan Pickford’s successor scouted and signed before April, and not rested our laurels on the higher-earning substitute goalkeepers we currently have.
These are a mere few examples of how Udinese’s business structure and approach to transfer matters can prosper, but there is so much more optimism to take from this unlikely direction.
By embracing this model, Sunderland can turn this current blemished state into genuine progressiveness; one revitalised by innovation, where temporary perception of astute management can give way to the reality of actual astute management.
Our club may yet even cast aside its look as being an unprofessional body and grow into becoming the progressive underdogs of English football.
This club is broke, anyway, so that soon-to-be-shredded wage bill may as well be divided between excessively able backroom and coaching teams, with the more going to players hungry enough to command success. And just imagine the new perception others would have of our club.
Sunderland AFC: professionally-operated; where players are discovered, where their ambitions can flourish, and talented footballers can perform on a heavily-televised platform, to further their own careers – an agent’s dream.
A “selling club” that sells itself: immune to the selfishness of individuals, instead embracing it for financial gain. Sunderland could become wholly established, operating on its own terms, becoming a savvy hand and the bar-raiser for assessing player value (that’s not a farfetched possibility either, considering how we are about to negotiate the third-highest ‘keeper sale in football history).
Oh, to be a prolonged and sustainable football club: dignified with moderate success, and always only a handful of sensible decisions away from achieving great things. This is not some delusional utopia! This is a very real management structure in use today, and when it works – it thrives!
Here is one final thought to leave you with. Last season, Udinese sold three players for a combined €26.3 million, all under twenty-two years old. Last season, Sunderland bought one player for £17 million. He was also under twenty-two years old.
We’ve been on the wrong side of business all along.