The existing owners have done some great work in stabilizing the finances of the club and in healing the open wounds which had festered for so long.
However, now it is now time for a fresh impetus to be given to the recovery, and with the announcement of the takeover seemingly imminent it will be interesting to see where the new regime’s attention will be concentrated.
Monetary investment is clearly needed but given our League One status, how should that investment be concentrated to make difference given the complexities of the rules on football finance at this level?
Identity and Recruitment
“What is Sunderland’s identity?” - how many times have we heard that over the last dozen years? I will be honest and say that, at times, I have struggled to even understand what the question even means.
Since the days of Mick McCarthy we have been in panic mode, with hundreds of scattergun signings and managers arriving and leaving, all with a different view and a different style. Those days have gone, and we have stabilized, but this stabilization has been done by necessity rather than by the establishment of a footballing philosophy, or via a consistent recruitment policy.
No matter how much the new owners invest in the playing staff, that investment will be wasted unless they get the recruitment and development team right. Existing personnel and future appointments must work within a consistency of policy and identity throughout the whole of the football club, so that if the manager or if that star player were to leave it wouldn’t matter, as a replacement would have been identified or already here.
I remember reading an interview with Peter Reid when we signed Gavin McCann; he had watched him 13 times for Everton reserves before he signed him. At the time we had Lee Clark, Alex Rae and Kevin Ball. Why did we need Gavin McCann? Well we needed him as we needed to kick on - we needed to develop - and we needed a player who was capable of growing with us. I wonder when the last time such care and attention went into making a signing.
So we need that structure, we need a philosophy, we need that consistency of training and development, and we need the best recruitment team that we can get.
Off field excellence
The North East and Sunderland as a city are clearly economically disadvantaged. When you look at the huge corporate facilities at Spurs’ new stadium, for example, how can we possibly compete? Well we can’t, but we must make our facilities, whether corporate or on the main concourse, the best they can be.
Fifteen years ago our corporate experience was small but it was brilliant - it was top end stuff. Now it’s no better than the Travelodge.
Money needs to be invested to bring it back to scratch. We may not be able complete with the Tottenham’s or Arsenal’s of the world for numbers or for glitz, but we can be better than them on the overall experience. We have done it before, and we need to do it again.
Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven have made huge strides with the restructuring of the club - costs had to be cut. This was a brutal and necessary exercise, but the fan experience has been cheapened from what is was a few years ago.
Clearly we are now League One and not Premier league and I would not seek to criticise what was necessary. But can you remember when you got an “All the lads” hardback book with your season ticket? Can you remember the gifts and promotions we received during those early Stadium of Light years?
They were small things which cost money, but they made a difference. Ways must be found to make the fan experience better to make us feel valued.
It may sound daft but why shouldn’t we be known for having the best beer and the best pies in the country? Surely a major club in the north should be known for something as clichéd as this. So, once the existing contracts are ended, we should make this and many similar things happen.
Off field excellence in everything that the club does will certainly cost money, but it will pay back as the fan experience improves.
The Academy should be and probably in many ways still is our biggest asset; you only have to look at the current England team to see what is possible. We are told that investment in the academy has continued over the last year or so, but has that been enough? It may have been the maximum amount available but costs will have been cut or avoided, as we know funds are tight.
The academy is the future and is also a carrot that brings in first team players so it is also vital for the here and now. It is all there but the culture needs to fit with the club’s identity and recruitment. The scouts and coaches need to be re-enthused, upskilled, and they and all staff need to be developed and taken care of.
There will inevitably be a churn on staff, but good people are here and available - they can advise, and help to bring the academy back to its former standards. Whether that input and advice comes from a Kevin Ball or from outside, we must have the best academy in the north, and the investment and attention must be given to it to make this happen.
Fan happiness will principally be driven by the results of the first team. It is a surprise to no one that the joy of watching Sunderland has been sucked out of even the happiest of happy clappers over the last decade.
Jack Ross has bristled at what he perceives as unfair criticism of our start to this season. He has a point, and it is difficult to disagree with him. We have done okay, but where is the joy in coming to the match?
The efforts of the Red and White Army have been a major plus, and whilst the atmosphere is generally still fragile it has been more positive. The pain of the fall and the grind of League One, however, takes its toll.
We are Sunderland - we have been trained to hope for the best but expect the worst. The club must be aggressive in everything it does; we need all parts of the club to work together and to be the best. That will bring pride, that will help bring results and then happiness will flow.
Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven have steadied the ship, but now we need to kick on to a happier and a brighter future.