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The P*ss-Taking Party Is Over: Could Sunderland try innovative approach to paying their players?

Pay players less, but offer them the chance to earn more? Could Sunderland’s new owners use relegation to League One as an opportunity to try something radical at Sunderland?

Livingston v Sunderland - Pre Season Friendly Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Listening in to this week’s Roker Rapport Podcast with the club’s new owners Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven was an incredibly refreshing experience. Both men were open, concise, and optimistic throughout, and as the show ended I felt more upbeat than I have in what feels like an eternity.

Of course, fans will judge the duo on the club’s performances across the coming campaign; however, many like myself will have a real sense of excitement after listening to the new owners’ plans for the club moving forward, and who can blame us?

Talking on a range of topics from stadium redevelopment, to budgets, to the future of the club, Donald and Methven really opened up as to how they wanted our club to operate. One thing that caught my eye, though, was their stance on the type of player coming into the club - especially when Charlie Methven stated:

This isn’t going to be a free ride any more. If agents come knocking thinking they can add an extra 10-20% on what they are asking for because it’s Sunderland... then those agents will be sent packing, and they’ll have done a really crappy job for their players because they’ll have lost the chance to play for the best club ever to play at this level. We are going to have to be very hard and very clear to act in the best interests of this football club.

The reputation of Sunderland in the game is that this is a place where people have come to take the piss, and I am sorry to say but that is the truth. That has been the case for quite some time. People have come here not because they passionately want to be here, but because they’ve heard this is a place where you’ll get paid really well; not very high expectations; a pretty easy going culture, etc.

That has to change.

Sunderland v Liverpool - Premier League
Lens would be a great example.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

A host of players came to mind when Methven made that bold claim - some of them are still on our books - and he’s right that as we progress this awful approach to player trading simply has to stop.

Methven’s comments feel like a watershed statement of cathartic proportions: are the days of splashing silly money on big names a thing of the past? I certainly hope so.

A big question remains, however. If the club aren’t willing to splash large sums of money in order to try and assemble a squad they hope might find success, then how do you motivate modern football players to find that desire to win?

Donald and Methven noted that the right manager, the right culture, and incorporating youth into the side would all be viable ways of creating a winning mentality, but I wonder if there’s another way in which our club could encourage its players to band together and find a winning mentality: by changing the way in which we pay our players.

Sunderland v Burnley - Premier League
One player who just didn’t seem particularly interested. On a large wage, where did his desire to succeed come from? It simply didn’t exist.
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

This idea is an opinion, a theory, a daydream that has found its way onto paper/pixel, but nevertheless it’s an interesting notion that I’ve thought about for a while. As a club we’ve been crippled by poor performances leading to relegation, which in turn has led to more poor performances and another relegation. Why couldn’t the players turn it around?

Telegraph writer Luke Edwards argued back in 2013 that many young players in England struggled to develop into winners because of too much money:

Could the persistent inability of our best young players to realise their potential be down to their own shortcomings? Could it be that the wonderkid at 17 is nothing more than a good league player at 23 because he is already a multi-millionaire enjoying the lifestyle his early fame and fortune brought him?

Every club wants to produce their own players, yet very few do so. Millions have been spent on infrastructure and training grounds, but even more has been spent on the wages of those produced by the academy system and the fees demanded by their agents.

There was a story last week in Telegraph Sport that revealed West Bromwich Albion had agreed a new contract with their 20-year-old striker Saido Berahino that would pay him a basic wage of £14,000-a-week.

That deal was reward for his form this season and few would argue it is undeserved. But Berahino has played just seven Premier League games, of which only two have been starts, and he is already well on his way to being financially secure for the rest of his life.

I don’t want to pick on one young man as I know of players who have lined up for the England Under-21 side he now represents who were being paid three times that.

Could something similar be said then of Sunderland’s misfiring misfits? Was there a lack of urgency and determination due to the fact that they were being paid a handsome wage that did little to motivate them to succeed on the pitch?

It’s definitely a possibility, and I’d be interested to see how our players would perform if their contracts were based on performance-related-bonuses more so than hefty basic salaries.

Would Donald and Methven be so bold as to overhaul the manner in which the club payed its players? It would be an enormous risk, yet a season in League One might just be the perfect opportunity to try something as bold.

I obviously don’t know the ins and outs of contractual negotiations, but I wonder how plausible it would be to change the club’s approach to contracts? Instead of paying players hefty sums week upon week, could we not instead look at a far smaller weekly base pay, but incorporate an impressive bonus structure to add another incentive for our players to play well? Success would breed profit for the players, and could well attract players eager to prove their talent rather than looking for a mere pay day.

Of course, players could well choose a club offering more money, but the chance to deflate our wage bill and attract players genuinely eager to succeed might just be what we need going into next season’s campaign.

It’s all theoretical, but it’s food for thought.

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