Charlie Methven met the local press last week to give the club management’s perspective on how Sunderland were faring so far under the leadership of the Donald-Sartori-Methven triumvirate. He said:
We’re slightly ahead of our blueprint, on and off the pitch.
Methven outlined that the operating loss when they took over was forecast to be £35 million this year. The management team have reduced the cost base to £28 million from last years’ £64 million, whilst revenue is projected to rise to £18.5 million, leaving a shortfall of just under £10 million. The aim is to reduce the cost base by a further £6 million and run a loss for this year of £4 million.
Alongside the budgets, forecasts and balance figures, Methven spoke about the club’s ambitions for promotion and how the management team were responding to the performances on the pitch:
We knew that the first few months would be difficult with such a big turnover of players and a new league. I think we said that around Christmas we hoped we’d be in and around the top six, to give us a platform to push on in the second half of the season. So, where we are now, third with a game in hand, is probably a bit ahead where we thought we would be.
Implications for January
With promotion the stated aim and the current position looking healthy, what can fans expect when it comes to the January transfer window, in light of the financial picture Methven has painted?
Sunderland’s Executive Director explained the EFL’s Salary Cost Management Protocol regulations, whereby clubs were prevented from spending more than 60% of their projected turnover on wages, with the threat of an embargo for teams who did not comply.
In this division, we have SCMP rather than FFP. We had to sign off on an FFI (Future Financial Information agreement), which was our business plan and included how we would bring our finances under control.
This, Methven explained, would limit the business Sunderland would be allowed to do in the forthcoming window. Within the FFI, Sunderland had already assumed the departures of several high-earners, including Papy Djilobodji and Didier Ndong.
For us to be able to bring in more players, our current wage outgoings will have to be reduced. It is as simple as that. If you look at our wage bill now, it is around £14.5 million. The average in this league is about £3 million.
We are in a bit of a bind and Jack is aware of that. But at the same time, one or two players leaving in January would be perfectly natural, and we have quite a big squad, certainly by League One standards.
I don’t think Jack wants many more numbers but like most managers I’m sure he does want to tweak in certain areas, and I’m sure in the board and Stewart he would find a willing listener.
Jack Ross has made his own comments about the preparatory work he and his team have already begun in advance of January:
At the moment, any planning that’s being done for January is more about positions. We’re looking at that rather than finances, and how we juggle the finances to allow us to do what we want to do.
Stewart is fairly supportive in that sense, and I take a fairly pragmatic approach to that too. At the moment, it’s more about what we feel we need positionally.
Then, it’ll be about fitting the pieces together accordingly. If we look at a position and identify that as being appropriate, then the players we identify might not fit with the parameters we have to work to. But we’ll deal with that further down the line
Who could leave?
Methven mentioned how the FFI had assumed the high-earners would leave this season and this does suggest the futures of Lee Cattermole, Bryan Oviedo, Aiden McGeady, and Donald Love - who was signed during the club’s last Premier League campaign - would come under scrutiny once more.
Lee Cattermole has been nothing short of an inspiration this season. For many fans, losing Cattermole in the same window as John O’Shea, Billy Jones and Jack Rodwell would have been preferable, yet Sunderland’s longest-serving player has knuckled down and seen a huge up-turn in his reputation on Wearside.
Whether Cattermole’s form has been widely noticed outside of League One is open to debate. And, if it has, would anyone be willing to pay his wages, let alone any fee Sunderland would demand, for his services? There are clearly teams in the lower half of the Championship that could do with Cattermole’s battling qualities, but would Ipswich Town, Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday, or Stoke City be able to afford our former captain?
Bryan Oviedo is an interesting case. Having played at the World Cup in the summer, many thought he’d be the first name on the departures list.
However, whether it was his injury record or the cost of the Costa Rican full-back that put potential suitors off, Oviedo remained at Sunderland beyond the summer window. Like Cattermole, the left-back put his head down and has made a positive impression within Ross’ squad.
Oviedo seems one of the more likely moves away this coming January; the defender would likely fetch a decent price, and removing his wages from the squad’s bill would be a shrewd bit of business if James and Hume keep up their impressive form.
Aiden McGeady has returned from a lengthy lay-off and whilst his performances and attitude have been praised by Jack Ross, the form of Lynden Gooch, Jerome Sinclair, Josh Maja and Chris Maguire have proved that Sunderland could live without the Irishman, were other clubs to come calling.
Furthermore, with Duncan Watmore and Charlie Wyke due to return to the squad in the near-future following injury, the need to retain McGeady would be further reduced.
McGeady has shown glimpses of his true quality this season, and his cracking goal at the weekend served as a reminder that the former Celtic and Spartak Moscow winger is still a quality player. Could a Championship team looking for a creative spark be tempted to bring McGeady in for a few quid?
Donald Love was brought in by David Moyes when money was not such a big concern. Whilst the fee for the former Manchester United man was minimal in comparative terms, his wages would remain high for a League One side.
Given that Love is a back-up player at best, it may make financial sense to seek a club willing to take him off Sunderland’s hands in January.
That might prove easier said than done, though, for Love has yet to really stake a claim for a continued starting berth in Ross’ side.
And then, of course, there are those out of contract next summer…
What next for the players currently out of contract in 2019?
The list of players out-of-contract in 2019 on Sunderland’s books are: Robbin Ruiter, Max Stryjek, Adam Matthews, Reece James, Denver Hume, George Honeyman, Lynden Gooch, Elliot Embleton, Luke Molyneux, Josh Maja, Jack Diamond and on-loan forward Jerome Sinclair.
Depending on which positions Jack Ross has identified as areas for improvement and which Academy stars he sees as being able to make the step-up into the first team squad, a number of these players may be moved on. Whilst some won’t impact the wage bill substantially, any transfer fee may prove beneficial in finding long-term solutions to Sunderland’s problem areas.
Should anyone enquire about Ruiter, Matthews or James, the more senior names on that list, Sunderland will have to make a decision if they haven’t already done so. Do they see these players as having a future at the club and offer them a new deal, or do they cash in now? Are there players in-situ who can cover in the event of a decent offer being made, or would a replacement cost more than the sales would generate?
In the case of the younger players, the likes of Stryjek, Molyneux and Embleton are already out on loan, and Sunderland’s coaching team will be able to make informed decisions regarding these highly-rated youngsters. Elsewhere, moves have already been made in an effort to extend the deals of Maja, Hume, Gooch and Honeyman.
But do Sunderland have capacity to offer new deals within the FFI? Methven was upbeat about such prospects:
The Football League will be more lenient with contracts for the younger players because they can see while wages might go up, it is good business, it is responsible. Taking on four players on 500 grand a year [without outgoings], would not be.
The negotiations [with young players] are ongoing. We’re absolutely committed to keeping them.
Methven did sound a note of caution, however:
Ultimately, of course, if a player out of contract isn’t going to sign one, then we have to click into a different mode which is protecting our financial position.
But the current mode is we want to keep them, we absolutely want to keep them.
This is an important caveat. If Sunderland have a player unwilling to sign a new deal then, surely, he will be one the club would cash in on now, rather than lose for a minimal, if any, fee in the summer. This applies to any of those 11 Sunderland players on our list.
Whatever happens in January, Methven is clear there is a plan in place where the playing squad is concerned and that will remain the aim:
I remember that when we came to the club, we were told that Sunderland supporters expected a team that goes out and grafts, and they hadn’t had that for a bit.
I think Jack Ross has fulfilled that expectation, that demand, by putting together a group that plays as a team, fights for each other, and fights for the fans, and that is what is forming a bond between them and the core fanbase.