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Should appointing a Director of Football really be Sunderland’s top priority right now?

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Chris Wynn ponders if hiring a Director of Football should really be a priority in Sunderland’s current position whilst looking at the difficulties of making such an appointment.

Sunderland v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

Looking ahead is always a worthwhile exercise, as is having a long term plan, but sometimes this has to take a back seat when you’re in a rut as Sunderland currently are. It could be argued this type of thinking got us to this position in the first place and I wouldn’t disagree. But is now really the time to recreating the position at Sunderland?

There have been previous windows over the last decade where we have had the chance to take a breath and implement a structure that would have given the club a solid foundation to, at the very least, cement our Premier League position, and there were other times when doing this just didn’t make sense.


Previous Experiments

As a club we do have experience in the world of attempting long-term strategic planning, all initiated by Ellis Short. Our first adventure started with the appointment of Roberto De Fanti and Valentino Angeloni as our Director of Football and Chief Scout respectively. At least to me (I have young kids so time has sped up considerably…) this seems like a lifetime ago, but these appointments were in fact only six and a half years ago, in June 2013.

These were men with solid reputations and their record with Udinese gave us a buzz of excitement that has often been lacking following the lads over the last decade. This experiment would last a whole 7 months in which time 14 players were recruited in one summer with pretty grim consequences.

We then tried again two months after De Fanti’s departure in the form of appointing Frank Arnesen’s protégé Lee Congerton as a sporting director. Congerton would spend almost two years on Wearside with mixed results under difficult circumstances. His remit was essentially cutting costs whilst preserving Sunderland’s status as a Premier League club - not an easy task.

Sunderland v Burnley - Premier League
Ellis Short
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Then we had the instantly-forgettable Simon Wilson, this time in the role of chief football officer. Wilson was thrown in at the deep end when he joined on the first day of the January 2017 transfer window during the season-long debacle that was David Moyes. Again, his pedigree was good, coming from Manchester City where he had contributed to the player analysis before and after the takeover at the Etihad.

Wilson’s time on Wearside came to an abrupt ending after six months when Sunderland were finally relegated to the Championship and the cost-cutting began. Six months isn’t a barometer to judge his time at the club and it’s clear to everyone the difficulties at Sunderland during that time, as Wilson explained in January 2018...

We certainly felt the effects of Sunderland’s history of managerial turnover in both the squad and infrastructure. It was probably pieces of four or five managers rather than one.

Every manager has their preferences. Some have a higher desire for a type of player to fit a playing model, some believe the need for instant results dictates they need more Premier League experience - especially if they’re in a relegation fight or struggling.


Competent Managers

I am not presenting these facts on our previous experiments to discredit the whole theory of appointing a director of football as I’m not completely against the idea, but merely to remind people that it has got the potential to go as wrong in the same way as when an incompetent manager is appointed.

It’s also safe to say that creating this position became a necessity born of appointing managers who the board didn’t really have complete faith in. A clear example of this theory is the fact Lee Congerton was placed on gardening leave through the appointment of Sam Allardyce, where having a competent manager effectively made his position redundant.

Watford v Sunderland - Premier League
Sam Allardyce
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

As I stated previously, there were also times during the last decade when, if you asked Sunderland fans their thoughts on whether the club should appoint a director of football, the answer received would be a resounding no. Let’s rewind back to the 11th May 2016, only three and a half years ago, when Sam Allardyce’s Sunderland side had just ripped apart an Everton side including John Stones, Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku beating them 3-0 at the Stadium of Light.

Sam Allardyce had been allowed to strengthen during the January window and built the squad with players he knew how to manage and get the best out of. We only need to look at how the fitness of Jan Kirchhoff was negotiated in partnership with the player to produce performances. Allardyce had this in mind when making the signing and that comes with good management.

We knew we had a manager who could pick a player for a price and already have a plan on what to do with the player in terms of not only a tactical way on the pitch but also psychologically. There was simply no need for a director of football at that time. We were comfortable that we were being managed well and why would we need someone to tell our well-performing manager what to do and who to sign?


Current Position

Recently the discussion of appointing a director of football at Sunderland has again come to the fore. This is fueled purely by what we, at the current time, perceive to be simply bad, or at the very least non-existent management, on and off the pitch. Some will disagree, but I think the owners got the appointment of Jack Ross correct. Yes, the bottom line was that he failed in achieving his main target for the season, but from what he started with, to take us that close was an achievement and the owners deserve credit for that.

However, poor decisions that have impacted how we’re performing on the pitch have blighted us since January of this year and have resulted in us now having a manager in charge that the majority of us want out, being mid-table in League One and with a squad that is worse than the one we had 12 months ago.

Sunderland v Blackpool - Sky Bet League One
Phil Parkinson
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Taking our current predicament into account, my feeling is that a director of football is not our priority at the current time. Even if the owners finally come to the same conclusion as most of us in that Parkinson is not the man to lead this football club, we have to realise that the pool of managers with the character, experience, talent, and who are willing to take the job on is the smallest it has ever been.

We could then apply that to the pool of people who could perform the director of football role, and do we then pick the best of a bad bunch purely because we have no faith in the owners to appoint the right manager?

We currently sit four points from a play-off place whilst in a run that can be statistically described as relegation form. The conversation on director of football will be one that we need, but now is not the time. The priority for me is to appoint a competent manager who can manage this team in the right manner and give the club a desperately needed lift.

Right now we need the appointment of a manager who the fans back from the off. We need an injection of enthusiasm; we need someone we can get behind, who leads our club and makes you want to follow them without them even asking. We need someone who won’t hide away, someone who tells it how it is but gives us the belief that they will deal with it.

Let’s get the decisions right today so that can put us in a better position to get long term planning right when that time comes.