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Sunderland feels like a club simply getting by - what needs to change to enact REAL improvement?

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Away from the football pitch, Sunderland feels like a football club simply getting by. But what are the key areas of the club that need to be invested in? And how could this investment bring positive change?

Sunderland v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Sunderland generally seem to be moving in the right direction on the pitch at the minute. Four wins and two draws in their previous six games has energised the side as Parkinson’s men have dragged themselves back into the promotion fight.

However, it’s fair to say that off the pitch things have been turbulent. Largely fuelled by disappointment on the pitch, but also by a long list of prior promises that haven’t quite come to fruition, fans and fanzines, including this one, lashed out at Sunderland owner, Stewart Donald.

I personally had conflicted feelings about the #DonaldOut campaign. Mainly because I would have liked to see a plan that offered both insight into what people perceived the issues plaguing the club to be and what could be done to remedy them. That being said, I also respect the fact that people stood up for what they considered to be right. I respect the fact that people stood to defend their club during its lowest period.

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

Sunderland clearly do have serious issues that are hurting the club, and they need to be remedied. Admittedly, the issues aren’t solely the fault of the current ownership, but ultimately they are damaging the club’s chance of success whilst also stymieing future growth. Sunderland should be striving for constant growth, improvement, and excellence throughout the club, but at present it just doesn’t feel that way.

There could well be other issues that need to be discussed, but aren’t done so in this article. The club’s financial situation, for example, is a topic that is integral to the club’s future, but also a difficult topic to navigate at present.

Firstly, the figures involved would vary massively from one ownership group to the next - and this article is focusing on what needs to change long-term throughout the club - but also because it’s a topic that largely involves private information that is not available to public view.

The easiest way to talk about finances is to note that significant investment is needed in the club in order to get it into a position where it is sustainable.

In this article, the four topics discussed are:

  1. Our Academy & pathways for players to get into the first team.
  2. Our recruitment process and long term vision.
  3. Our club’s staffing infrastructure.
  4. A lack of momentum in club improvements and fan engagement projects.
Sunderland v Carlisle United - Checkatrade Trophy Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Academy & Player Pathways

A recent Twitter post by Data and Scouting service, MRKT Insights, noted that of all League One sides, Sunderland are the worst club in utilising players under the age of twenty three.

Since its publication, some have argued that the evidence on hand demonstrates that Sunderland’s Academy isn’t producing the goods - that the club should be using their category one listed academy system to promote young talent in a league whereby they’ll be given a chance to develop.

Last season we saw Denver Hume make his first team breakthrough after Josh Maja had shown his worth before moving onto pastures new. Sunderland’s academy produced two players that are/were mainstays in the first team - alongside Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman.

However, the departures of Morgan Spencer to Leeds, Luca Stephenson to Liverpool, Sam Greenwood to Arsenal, Jacob Young to Hoffenheim, and Logan Pye said to be close to signing for Manchester United have also been highlighted as proof that Sunderland’s academy doesn’t have the holding power that it once did, and that something has to change in order to get it back on track.

Minutes played by players aged under 23.
https://twitter.com/insightMrkt/status/1218186072246620164

This season many had hoped that Elliot Embleton and Ethan Robson would make the step up into the first team. Both had found success on loan away from the club last season where they gained valuable minutes, and both fit the bill for Sunderland’s needs.

Yet, it hasn’t quite worked out for those players, and the same can be said of both Bali Mumba and Benji Kimpioka, who perhaps could have benefitted from a loan deal away from the club this season after showing glimpses of potential last season.

Something, however, seems to have gone wrong - a notion reinforced by our academy side’s wretched form this season.

At present, the U23 side sit bottom of the PL2 Division 2 table with 1 point from 15 games. Last season they finished bottom of the league with 2 wins and 6 draws from 22 games. In 2017/18 they finished second from bottom with 6 wins and 4 draws in Division 1 of PL2. 2016 was the last year in which the U23 side showed some promise - finishing seventh in the PL2 Division 1.

Arsenal FC v Derby County - Premier League 2
Greenwood has been linked with moves to Juventus, AC Milan, and several Bundesliga clubs since his move to Arsenal.
Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

A player pathway feels like something that needs to be developed or enhanced if there is one already in place at the club.

Players showing real signs of ability perhaps need to be earmarked at a young age and given a tailored plan to fast-track their development. Saïd Ouaali, the head of Ajax’s academy, notes that:

We focus always on the individual. We don’t think about age groups, like the Dutch federation or like other clubs. It can be hard for coaches because they want results as well — to be successful, to be promoted to the next step up — but we try to find coaches who focus on the development of players, who learn the individual, not the team.

Sunderland also perhaps need to focus on the individual whilst also finding ways to expedite their academy pathways.

Bali Mumba, for example, perhaps needed a loan at the end of last season to help develop his ability - the same can be said of Benji Kimpioka. Both needed loans this season to help them improve, too.

In fact, it could be argued that Robson and Embleton could also have used more senior game time, and that if they had then perhaps they’d be better ready to be involved with the first team. The club need to improve at fast tracking its players to be ready for first team action.

The club need to begin to believe in their young players that they have earmarked as having the potential to play for the first team. Ajax are the ultimate example of a team that totally believe in their academy, and have been significantly rewarded by that investment. In Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs de Light they developed two world class players that not only brought success to the side, but also over £130 million into the club’s accounts.

In League One, Sunderland are in the perfect position to develop talented young players. Josh Maja and Denver Hume are great examples, but who else might have been an asset to the club if we had at least given them a consistent chance in the Sunderland squad?

Sunderland v Charlton Athletic - Sky Bet League One
Has Mumba’s growth been stunted in this poor U23’s side?
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The Recruitment Process

Sunderland’s recruitment has always been an iffy area of discussion. Historically the club have been guilty of overspending on average players; of offering bumper deals to players who often didn’t make the grade.

Tony Coton has had a lot to manage with limited resources, though Stewart Donald has noted that £500,000 has been invested in the club’s scouting team, with Janne Wilkman appointed as a head of Nordic scouting.

It could be argued that Sunderland are looking to improve their recruitment process - even if this January has been something of a damp squib thus far. But, Sunderland’s ownership have presented mixed messages on the recruitment topic, and this has arguably hindered the club’s growth.

When Donald and Methven initially acquired into the club, it was argued that:

The equivalent clubs are not Chelsea or Tottenham. The equivalent clubs are clubs like Borussia Dortmund, who understand what kind of club they really are which is (people from) a big, serious working-class area, passionate about their football club.

Do they try to outspend Bayern Munich? No.

They to make sure they have a large stadium with accessible pricing and it is absolutely packed out at 60-70,000 per game. That is the model for Sunderland, that’s actually what Sunderland is. It is not about trying to compete with Spurs and trying to be the flash guys which is, I am afraid, where it has gone for the past ten to 15 years.

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

It was refreshing at the time to hear the club’s ownership note exactly what the issues were that had plagued the club - as well as identifying a model they were keen to base their business on.

However, Sunderland’s subsequent transfer dealings have been a mixed bag. For every Luke O’Nien there’s a Laurens De Bock, for every Jordan Willis a Glenn Loovens, and for every George Dobson a Will Grigg. Amongst the seemingly positive additions, there are littered signings that just haven’t worked, or indeed fitted the plan that was laid out at the beginning of the new ownership’s reign.

Some of Sunderland’s signings point to a club lacking an overall plan in terms of recruitment - though that’s always going to be a difficult task for an underfunded department with one key staff member.

Before resigning from an active position on Sunderland’s board, Charlie Methven argued that:

If you go up to the Championship it’s not suddenly about throwing money at players. What you need is an embedded structure.

There is no point doing it once you have achieved promotion, you need to be already looking and identifying players now and that’s why we will be putting these structures in place with the new investment.

That is the same with bringing talented players into the academy, one to help your first team and two to potentially sell on, as there’s a significant demand for these players.

But has Sunderland’s activity suggested an embedded structure? It’s difficult to point to one, to be honest.

Sunderland v Tranmere Rovers - Sky Bet Leauge One
O’Nien has been a great acquisition.
Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Sunderland would do well to stick to the ownership’s original thoughts and use our period in League One as an opportunity to develop Methven’s fabled “embedded structure.”

The Dortmund model, roughly speaking, is a model of recruitment whereby the club focuses its player purchasing on young talent capable of developing with the side, rather than forking out for players deemed to have already “made the grade”. Willis, O’Nien and Dobson are good examples of the approach, but Sunderland need to be much more effective at this.

Most people know about the ‘Moneyball’ approach, but Sunderland should use analytics to identify players that fit into the manager’s style far more effectively than simply by eye alone.

Additionally, this period could have been a great opportunity for the club to embrace modern techniques to recruitment. Using data and analytics is something that is quickly becoming the norm. Most, if not all, Premier League clubs are now utilising data to help inform their coaching, strategy, staff appointments, and recruitment. Sunderland could use an analytical approach to enhance their entire organisation if they chose to.

One great anecdote that FC Barcelona’s data team found was that Messi makes more space for his teammates simply by standing still when compared to other players running or jogging. Teams can even use data to predict how to disrupt team most effectively - a technique called ‘ghosting’. Data analysts can even use this information to understand how effective other players brought into the side might be in a specific situation.

Sunderland need to invest in data analysis to inform decision making throughout the club, it’s the future of the sport, and Sunderland need to get ahead of the game.

Borussia Dortmund v FC Barcelona: Group F - UEFA Champions League Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Staff Infrastructure

Simply put, Sunderland must invest in an appropriate staffing infrastructure that is capable of cultivating growth, professionalism, and success. As such, Sunderland need to hire both a CEO and a Director of Football in order to find grow this mentality.

Sunderland lost both Tony Davidson and Charlie Methven in the space of several months - two board members that were actively involved in the day-to-day running of Sunderland AFC. In their place the club have appointed two non-executive directors in Tom Sloanes and David Jones to help ease the hole left by the loss of the Davison and Methven.

But, as helpful as these additions are to the club, Sunderland need more.

Manchester City v Swansea City - Premier League Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

In terms of a CEO, Sunderland need someone to create a business plan that maximises Sunderland’s earning potential off the pitch. Before he left, Davison oversaw a project that brought the Spice Girls to the Stadium of Light - but will concerts continue to come to the SoL now that he’s left?

Commercially could the club be doing more in term of sponsorship and advertising? Perhaps the answer is no, but a Chief Executive is tasked with the remit of finding ways to develop financial growth, and as Sunderland continue to rebuild that is exactly what we will need.

Sunderland need to develop an attitude of the utmost professionalism and of sustainable growth whilst being proactive and intelligent in their business practices. A CEO would be the figurehead to ensure that is Sunderland’s plan.

The calls for a Director of Football, on the other hand, have been well documented for quite some time.

Sunderland need a link between the boardroom and the dugout, someone that directs the recruitment team, coaching teams, and all other departments linked directly with the club’s football sides.

A Director of Football shouldn’t be in the mold of De Fanti or Congerton - the club’s failed experiments at adopting the system. Instead, the role should be a progressive position in the club that keeps departments accountable whilst developing a long term strategy that enables the club’s various departments to work together towards a common goal.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland v Stoke City - Stadium of Light Photo by Steve Drew - PA Images via Getty Images

Projects to Improve Fan Engagement

Last season’s new seat initiative at the Stadium of Light was perhaps the best bit of PR that the club’s ownership performed to endear themselves to the Sunderland support. It showed that they cared about the smaller side of things, that they wanted to bring some pride to the club. The same can be said of the decision to revamp the Roker End, and to invest in a flag display.

However, since last season it feels as if things have slowed down on the fan engagement front. Some might point to fan unrest as the reason why the club has backed off, yet others would suggest that the lack of engagement has in fact flamed the fires of agitation.

Meaningful fan engagement projects help all involved with the club; they show fans that their concerns are listened to and acted upon. In turn, fans feel valued when their grievances are heard - which often leads to some kind of return on investment.

Advertising and commercial sponsorship returns are often boosted when potential business partners can see that the business in question has a solid link to its customer base. NASCAR, for example, poll their avid fans regularly to gauge business decision and marketing opportunities - it’s beneficial to all involved.

The newly refurbished East Stand after just two seat phases. Sunderland AFC

Sunderland have a long list of issues that frustrate fans. One example I can give first hand is the ticketing experience. Living abroad, it’s rare that I get to see Sunderland play in the flesh. However, this past Christmas I went home and caught a game. Buying tickets, however, was a really tough task. The ticketing site isn’t mobile friendly, and the staff in the ticketing office (who were amazing) were just as frustrated as I was. The whole process was difficult - and it shouldn’t be.

Furthermore, complaints have surfaced from fans in charge of the flag display that the bins used to store the flags are dirty and not fit for purpose. As such, the flags are being damaged, which is really disappointing. Past discussions talked about using the old holding cells in the back of the South stand to store the flags, yet nothing has been done to proactively solve the situation.

Reports of different prices for the same type of drink around the ground is another problem that has seemingly been raised - it’s a crazy issue that makes the club look at best unorganised.

On the topic of food and beverage, the staff seem really overwhelmed at times, even though they’re trying their best. Small kiosks hinder staff’s ability to be effective, so the club created a kiosk in the North stand that allows you to prepay for food and drinks on an app and pick them up during busy periods, like half time. The busiest stand in the stadium, though, does not have a kiosk with the same capabilities - surely that is just practical and good business sense?

Discussions about safe standing and moving the away fans to enhance the atmosphere within the ground have seemingly halted, and the stadium in general needs updating. The seats were a great start, but the speaker system is still poor, and the stadium just feels rundown and dirty - the list could go on.

Listen to the fans, work on the simple errors, and invest in initiatives. In turn, you’ll have a larger crowd that will more than likely put their hands deeper into their pockets on a match day and generally be more supportive.

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

A culture based on accountability and constant improvement is needed at Sunderland. Throughout the club, from top to bottom, Sunderland AFC needs to be a club and a business that is in constant pursuit of excellence. It needs a management team capable of implementing a strategy that brings results, and it needs to understand that the fans are crucial to any success that might finds its way to Wearside.

If someone wants to make Sunderland into a big club, they can. The foundations are there and with the right team of people, success would soon follow.

The club’s badge holds the latin phrase ‘Consectatio Excellentiaetranslated in English to, ‘in pursuit of excellence’. Truthfully, though, this doesn’t feel like a club striving to be the best. It feels like a club just getting by.