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Sunderland’s deepest past problems explored - what is ‘the rotten core’?

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“Allowing so many areas throughout the Sunderland AFC to operate on a short term strategy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This, I believe is the rotten core” writes James Barron.

Sunderland v Aston Villa - Premier League Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

You may or may not have heard of the fabled “rotten core” at our club. The term was first coined many years ago and was only furthered by Gus Poyet’s evaluation that “something” was wrong with the club although he was unable to pinpoint what this actually was.

At first glance, this may be seen as him hinting towards certain players (widely believed to be a drinking culture) or the setup of the club at that time (Director Of Football, Managing Director) or the owner, but Poyet has since spoken about that statement and refuted those notions long after leaving, stating that it was something he could still not put his finger on and if he was able to, he would let us know.

I have an opinion on what it is, but it is not easily described or explained.

My belief is the reason this club will forever under-perform in the main (depending on whose expectations) if nothing is challenged, is the weight of importance placed on the present rather than the future with every single thought and decision that is made from everyone involved at with the club.

Imagine a scale from one to ten (referenced throughout), one meaning the immediate (next month) and 10 being long term (10-20 seasons). If your mind is set to a 3 on the scale, how many decisions would be made differently if you had concentrated on a 6?

This singular issue affects every aspect of the club, top to bottom, owners to fans. From what tactics the manager decides, the composure of a player, how well the staff perform, fans opinions - every detail. It affects every action and reaction to what someone will say on a forum, in an interview, to what is being said or sung in the stand and chatted about at the pub.

Allowing so many areas throughout the club to operate on a short term strategy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This, I believe is the rotten core - every different aspect of the club feeding off one another to focus on the here and now that creates a compounding knock-on effect, despite the best efforts or well-wishing of everyone within the club, the majority of decisions made are wide open to become detrimental to the club long term.

I don’t believe that Short, Bain, Keane, Quinn, Poyet, De Fanti, Congerton, Moyes, Grayson or Coleman (I could go on and on) are all terrible or that they had bad intentions. Just that they were locked into a system/structure/framework that was set up to fail, created by everyone involved with the club.

Sunderland U21 v Liverpool U21 - Barclays U21 Premier League Photo by Ian Horrocks - Sunderland AFC/Getty Images

Transfers

Lee Congerton turned up with a Moneyball concept and said his forward-thinking, ahead of the times database could not only find value but also do so whilst utilising fine details like a players mindset and how said player would behave at the club.

He then went on to buy Jack Rodwell as his main signing. He did the opposite to what he believed was correct because of the “rotten core”. The pressure was immense to stay in the Premier League, the pressure was immense from the manager to buy a player that knew the division, and the pressure was immense from the fans to spend some money. How different would our transfers be if everyone involved thought on a scale of 7, rather than 2?

Short Term Mindset - pay over the odds for players that have the best chance of being able to make an instant impact. When paying over the odds on wages, you risk the chance to hamper any chance to rectify a mistake due to the player’s value dropping but his wage remaining the same.

Long Term Mindset - pay a player’s intrinsic value, meaning if the deal goes better than expected or worse, it will allow either a boost in assets or the opportunity to sell and recoup your initial outlay.

Sunderland AFC Unveil New Signing Jack Rodwell Photo by Ian Horrocks - Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Scouting

Ellis Short once made a decision to fundamentally change the way we operated since creation by installing our very first director of football.

He choose an agent called Roberto De Fanti and he brought with him some of the best scouts in the world. All sounds good until they were given the remit of fully reshaping the team while lowering the wage and selling to buy. I believe this was because Ellis Short wanted to plan long term with instant expectations. De Fanti was sacked after 6 months and his reign is one looked on as laughable by Wearside although in my opinion, for the wrong reasons. Picking players is extremely complex and should be treated as such.

Short Term Mindset - look for English players that can make an instant impact. Speak to agents to see who is available. Hire scouts with friends/contacts in the game.

Long Term Mindset - hire people who understand a player has an intrinsic value. Fully align the scouts with a long term philosophy.


Owner

A member of the group Drumaville who owned us prior to Ellis Short once said: “what Roy wants, Roy gets”.

Short Term Mindset - hang your hopes on staff you have employed to sort out long term success when their role insists upon short term results.

Long Term Mindset - the philosophy and long term strategy are dictated by the owner, every staff member they employ should use their own expertise to carry out the strategic thinking set by the owner.

Sunderland v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Manager

A manager comes into our club with the knowledge that his tenure here will be short, history dictates that it will be. Armed with the knowledge that his wage and reputation hangs upon the performances on the pitch in the next 1-12 months, it’s reasonable to expect every decision he makes will be a 1, 2 or 3 on the aforementioned scale.

Short Term - a manager’s tactics, transfers and authority within the club is all heavily based on potentially being sacked in the next 6 months regardless of what he has done prior to a drop in form. This has the potential to set the club back both in balance and asset value.

Long Term - a manager should almost be immaterial to a club’s future success, the role they employ is heavily supported by an existing framework and structure, they understand they are to work within that structure and as such unless results go incredibly badly then they are safe in their position. Having a track record of improving people’s careers will open up a larger pool of interested parties at lower wages.

Sunderland v West Ham United - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images

Finance

We recently lost on average 30 million pounds per season for a number of seasons. This was a symptom of changing philosophies frequently, including the impractical remit given to De Fanti. You don’t get to change philosophy expecting immediate results without a large amount of damage.

Short Term Mindset - increase incomings from all sources the best we can and spend what is available to the best of our ability.

Long Term Mindset - create a plan as to how best to increase assets at the club through the academy and buying players whose value will increase.

You may think that the two are not mutually exclusive, that is not what I am trying with difficulty to express. It is the which of those is more important and therefore where the majority of planning/time and finances gets placed.

New Sunderland Manager Chris Coleman Press Conference Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Academy

Paul Reid spoke on the Roker Rapport Podcast last season and when questioned if a 5 to 10-year plan had been formulated to the progression of the players and structure of the academy, he replied it was not possible to do so because a new man (referencing a manager, I believe) could come in at any point and have different ideas on how to do things.

That to me is the absolute opposite of what should be the philosophy of a football club. If a new man could come in at any time with different ideas, that means the last set of ideas we’re working against what the new set of ideas are. Is it not possible to make a framework and then select a new man that fits the existing plan rather than the other way around? Would this not be far more conducive to continuity and progression?

Short Term Mindset - improve morale, cut costs.

Long Term Mindset - bankroll an appropriate risk/reward strategy that focuses on youth players from around the world. Beat the competition by being cleverer about strategy.

Darlington v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Philosophy

Charlie Methven spoke on a Roker Rapport Podcast about the Dortmund model at the beginning of his tenure. But, when questioned five months later about what that meant, instead of it meaning we would incorporate the philosophy what has made Dortmund successful which is long term strategic planning, It meant punching above our weight like they do and having our own identity.

Short Term - aspire to be a successful side.

Long Term - incorporate what a successful side does. (This does not mean competing with Dortmund over players, more so place a similar amount of importance in the future, as the successful ones do. Don’t expect to be able to do it when you’re more successful if you cannot do it straight away it will be more difficult to do so further down the line.

Sunderland v Bradford City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Philosophy in which to improve a football club

Bankroll it

Ellis Short did this, and it could be said that if the individuals he employed thought higher on the scale, that it may have worked, but they did not due to the “rotten core”.

There have been many successful examples of this working but only by incorporating aspects of long term planning unless our owners are prepared to constantly lose a large amount of money on a compounding basis. Chelsea eventually worked out a very clever way to semi self-finance in becoming a football factory of sorts.

They have recently hoovered players up based on their intrinsic value, loaned them out for fees and then sold them at a greatly increased price, all separate from the goings-on of the first team. Man City have almost infinite money but have invested heavily in the infrastructure and youth set-up to open the doors that even money can’t buy or at least open them at a significantly reduced price.

Sunderland Owner Ellis Short Visits Team Training Session Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Build on Momentum

This club runs on momentum massively.

The majority of fans would say that Peter Reid’s time at the club was their favourite, it was built on momentum and a bit of luck. I believe this manner of progression to be built on sand as it was under Reid and usually provides the quickest collapses.

The importance of momentum was outlined by Reid speaking about our well-remembered thrashing of Chelsea at home, he spoke about the two players we had in central midfield that day, Paul Thirlwell and Eric Roy, a player starting his career that would be enjoyed throughout the lower divisions and an ageing player that had never played at the top level, hammering world superstars like Desailly and Zola.

Reid later admitted that once Quinn was unable to keep up his performances he did not know how to change the side and the momentum turned as it inevitably will when a club is based on this.

S’land v Man Utd - 9 Photo by John Giles - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

Long term planning

There are examples of this but it is not prevalent in England.

Dortmund, Ajax, Bilbao, Arsene Wenger and Crewe 20 years ago are good ones, and you could argue Burnley and Southampton until recently as well.

The finances and planning are weighted towards tomorrow rather than today. If this is seen through, and those in charge hold their nerve, form will fluctuate but collapse is far less likely and severe.

Managers are almost immaterial as the structure remains the same regardless of a player or manager leaving. Players are purchased on their intrinsic value and if done well, it becomes far easier to be successful as well as self-financed.

Looking in from the outside, I would guess that our plan is to build on momentum. I imagine fan pressure played a part in the signing of Will Grigg. That’s not to say that he was a bad choice, but probably one weighted towards the here and now (which may be necessary).

He was possibly purchased at beyond his true worth because of the value placed on momentum and keeping fans and manager happy on transfer deadline day.

I believe this will have a knock-on effect - the pressure is increased on Jack Ross due to the expensive nature of the squad, the pressure is increased on Will Grigg due to his cost and replacing Josh Maja and the pressure is increased on the owners to give in to fan demand and bankroll the club should it be needed.

Thus, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of a system set up to fail.

Sunderland v Heerenveen Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Iam Burn/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Intrinsic Value

I’ve spoken a couple of times about a player’s intrinsic value, and below I will attempt to clarify my meaning. By using a similar system it can almost save a club from itself and would provide an excellent process in player recruitment. I believe plenty of mistakes from the past could have been alleviated had a similar process been stuck to rigidly. It aims to find a player’s true value as opposed to what he is being sold for.

The intrinsic value of a player that Chelsea are investing in to sell at a profit, for example, is likely to be very basic due to the simplicity of the idea (buy to sell), it could be as simple as, the players value now, the predicted value in 2-3 years, the value of the loan minus costs.

Ours, however, should be far more complex as they’re for the first and must coincide with the running of the academy, there is a formula or algorithm that could be calculated to alleviate many mistakes of the recent past and it would include aspects such as:

  • Value Now: (Transfer Fee)
  • Importance to the team now: (1-10) 1 is not needed, 10 is imperative.
  • Potential Value after 75% of contract Length: (Transfer Fee Incoming)
  • Importance of position needed: (1-10)
  • Prospects in position at the club: (1-10) 10 meaning you have 2 or 3 youth players that you believe will be able to play that position and improve the team.
  • The possible stunt in the growth of prospects in the same position: (1-10) 10 meaning a prospect needs to play now.
  • Mentality: (1-10) 10 being loyal, brave, honest, determined etc.
  • Wage difference from squad: (1-10) 10 being 10 times the median squad wage.
  • Average position wage: (1-10) is the wage required relative to the median wage for that player’s position.
  • Injury susceptibility: (1-10)

Now you may think all of this is being done currently but does it get overridden by the “rotten core” at the club?

In Sunderland Till I Die, the much-maligned Jimmy Sinclair spoke to Martin Bain about having 7 out of 11 first-team players under the age of 24 when planning who to sign (on the basis that the club had to self-finance).

What actually happened is we bought two players over 30 and another failing Premier League player on large wages. What employees think is best for the club, in theory, has constantly been swept aside due to the importance of the short term (rotten core) and that importance will not end unless someone does something about it. (On a side note, the manager was changed, he had the complete the opposite theory on player recruitment and brought in youth players = constant change of philosophy equals disaster).

Sunderland First Team Take Part in the Fans Festival Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Summary

It is my opinion that only the owner can change the mentality throughout the club, and to do so they must first acknowledge the issue and it is not something that one may normally contemplate. I don’t think it is fair to expect fan nor employee to concentrate on the long term unless given the framework to do so by the owner.

To clarify - this is not an attempt to say that any decision made I believe to be wrong or that there is no long term plan, my theory does not rely upon that or if we are successful or not at any given time. More so an assumption on the thinking behind all decisions, subconscious or otherwise.

Sacrifice today for tomorrow’s betterment, if you will.