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Root & Branch: Sunderland must change their approach to recruitment; here’s what they need to do

Part Two - scouting and coaching. Why have Sunderland lacked strategy and cohesion for so long? Are we signing the wrong staff both on and off the pitch? What can be done to incite meaningful change?

Netherlands v England - International Friendly Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Yesterday’s article in this triology of required root and branch changes focused on Sunderland’s playing staff, their limitations and an over-reliance on loan deals.

Moving forward, it’s clear to see that the club needs to radically change in order to find growth. Nobody expects an overnight matamorphosis, but fans do expect to see signs of change should we come under new ownership this summer.

Over the course of the last decade we’ve hired thirteen managers in both full-time and short-term roles - is there really any wonder as to why we’ve struggled to find stability? Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but averaging more than one man in charge year after year simply reeks of panic and a clear lack of long-term vision.

Longevity and strategy are required in abundance if we are to halt our awful plunge.

Blackburn Rovers v Sunderland - Premier League
Twelve men at the helm since this bloke left the club.
Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

On the coaching side of things, it’s clear to see that almost every manager brought into the club had completely different ideas as to how things should be done. Is there any inkling of strategy or continuity with managerial appointments ranging from Gus Poyet through to Simon Grayson?

You can trace the first real tendrils of deperate panic emanating from inside the SoL back to the appointment of Roberto De Fanti as the club’s director of football in June 2013.

De Fanti’s brief stint as director of football was an unmitigated disaster, but so too was that of his replacement. Lee Congerton failed to rejuvenate a struggling Sunderland side, with reports suggesting he and then manager Gus Poyet failed to see eye to eye on a number of occasions. So, why did we roll the dice with a sporting director model, only to cast it aside?

Again, it would seem that the club’s hierarchy simply panicked. De Fanti spoke of his time at the club with The Guardian back in 2015, where he stated:

When I came in the situation was a disaster. We only had 12 or 13 players under contract [who] Paolo considered at Premier League level. Nine would be out of contract in one year and we had to rebuild a team ... 11 players were on loan or free.

My job was to reduce the salaries, spend as little as possible, sell the two best players who were [Simon] Mignolet and [Stéphane] Sessègnon. The job was economics, to change the contract system; take away the guaranteed loyalties, lower the wages, introduce performance bonuses.

De Fanti’s words should, of course, be taken with a pinch of salt, yet ultimately the club have continued on a rapidly worsening spiral of gloom since his appointment with no end in sight.

Congerton too hinted at how difficult things were when he arrived at our embattled club, even going so far as to suggest he should have taken a job with Ukrainian side Metallist Kharkiv as the nation fell into civil war.

Liverpool v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Not a single player signed under the director of football model was sold on for a profit, though. The club simply got it all wrong, and only Van Aanholt and Pickford were sold for serious returns after both De Fanti and Congerton were long gone.

Instead, players were signed with no vision in mind as managers disagreed with the directors of football above them - both Poyet and Advocaat suggested Congerton’s approach was flawed, with Advocaat once suggesting, “We just signed players who were available.”

A toxic mixture of one mistake following on from another has led to our downfall, and we’ve never really recovered. Instead, we’re left paying legacy transfer fees on players no longer at the club as money flows from open wounds left festering under stormy skies. Why did Ellis Short and his fellow directors feel De Fanti and Congerton were intelligent additions to our club? Who advised them?

Moving forward, something has to change. New ownership will need savvy, football-minded advisors to ensure past mistakes are not repeated behind the scenes.

James Hunter - The Chronicle

First and foremost it should be noted that our finances will make life difficult next season as we attempt to put together a team capable of winning games. However, that being said, not all hope is lost.

If/when Sunderland’s relegation is confirmed, I think many fans would be keen to see Chris Coleman stay on at the club should he receive the backing required in order to assemble a squad he and his staff consider to be capable of finding success.

Additionally, the club’s scouting department also needs a serious examination. Simon Wilson and Rob Mackenzie are but two names who’ve come and gone in our attempts at establishing a successful recruitment strategy, whilst Neale McDermott currently seems to be the man at the helm of operations, with Jimmy Sinclair as the club’s Academy boss.

Turnover behind the scenes suggests a complete lack of leadership... or money. But if that is the case, then the club simply have to adjust their approach to signing players. Coleman, or whoever is at the helm, needs players that are talented, hungry and willing to move to the north east - there’s plety of them, we’re just not looking in the right places.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Ian Macintosh of the Totally Football League Show and regular host Matt Stanger had an interesting discussion about Derby on their podcast this week. They posed the question as to whether signing experienced players was necessarily a good thing for the club considering their current slide in form - especially if said player has already had a solid career in football.

Would that player be as determined to succeed as a younger player of equivalent talent from lower down the footballing pyramid? Do they have that same drive and desire to make it to the top if they’ve already tasted it? They argued perhaps not, and looking at some of our own signings this season, it’s hard to disagree with their hypothesis.

Lee Camp, Marc Wilson, and Callum MacManaman haven’t exactly added much to the squad, despite their experience. Whilst the loan signings of other teams’ academy prospects also haven’t done us any favours.

Instead, perhaps the time has come for the club to look down the leagues in order to find young talent that would consider our club a step up in their careers.

I’m not a fan of pointing to the approaches of other clubs and suggesting we imitate their actions because, unfortunately, that rarely works out.

That being said, Peterborough United have successfully bought and developed a host of talent before selling them on for serious profit (around £50 million according to director of football Barry Fry) - talent signed largely from non-league and the lower divisions.

Don’t get me wrong, Peterborough aren’t exactly challenging for promotion and honours because selling this talent is part of their strategy as a club. However, their approach certainly shows the talent is there if you look hard enough and are willing to let go of signing experienced players lacking in drive and ambition.


Sunderland need a cathartic change in approach in order to build a strong side that will be able to find success over a number of years.

Abandoning previous malpractices, finding stability and cohesion as well as broadening our horizons in the transfer market are all approaches we desperately need to find off the field.

It might not be glamorous and it might not bring immediate success, but it will bring stability and growth - two traits we’re desperately in need of.