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Who is Sunderland’s rumoured new Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman?

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The imminent appointment of Kristjaan Speakman looks to be the first significant move to restructure the footballing side of the club by the incoming ownership partnership of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Juan Sartori. 

New Sporting Director, Kristjaan Speakman, speaking about Birmingham City’s academy

Reports this morning - confirmed by James Hunter of the Chronicle - indicate that Kristjaan Speakman is set to join Sunderland from Championship side Birmingham City, where he was Academy Manager for almost 10 years.

He joined the Blues as Assistant Academy Manager in 2006 and is highly regarded as one of the outstanding coaches and leaders in English football academies at the moment, credited with bringing through a host of players who have gone on to great success at a higher level.

The 41-year-old Englishman’s entire 22-year career in the game has been spent coaching and leading in youth development. He started at his local club Derby County, where he joined as an academy coach at the age of 19, before heading to the West Midlands to assist Terry Westley, who had also moved to St Andrew’s from the Rams.

After succeeding Westley in January 2011, Speakman’s role at Birmingham was expanded in the wake of Gary Monk’s departure as Blues manager in July 2019, to take in a Technical Board position. His other duties have including leading on succession planning strategy, liaising with the first team management on player progression pathways, the design and implementation of the coaching curriculum across all age groups as well as coaching and observing teams, groups, and individual players.

He has a degree in Business Management from the University of Derby, and, in an important indication of how he may operate in the Sporting Director role under the new Sunderland regime, Speakman’s previous job also involved player recruitment, retention, and professional contract negotiation. He describes his role at Birmingham as 70 percent leadership and 30 percent coaching.

As a leader, he has instituted a policy, embedded in Birmingham’s strategic plan, of having at least five academy products in the first team matchday squad at any one time - something he credits having a board and an ownership group who have always wanted to push academy players.

Leicester City v Arsenal - Carabao Cup Third Round
Demarai Gray of Leicester City came through Birmingham’s academy under Speakman
Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

The impact of this can be seen in the success of the talent that he’s produced over recent years.

Speakman has overseen the early careers of Nathan Redmond of Southampton, England international starlet Jude Bellingham, now playing in Germany with Borussia Dortmund, and Premier League winner Demarai Gray of Leicester City, currently a transfer target for title-contenders Tottenham Hotspur.

In a fascinating interview with Dave Wright on the Player Development Project Podcast back in December 2019, he explained the importance of the youth promotion policy in terms of aiding the transition from academy to senior football:

There is nothing like a changing room where you can look around and you can see someone else doing what you’re doing and being rewarded for it in the first team environment, which gives you that hope and that belief that you can do it yourself. And that’s been the single biggest driver for our kids; every year there has been someone who they actually physically know - not just someone they’ve got on Instagram who’s at the club and is 5 years ahead of them - that you can actually physically have a conversation with, are playing in the first team or have had an opportunity. That makes it really, really real for the kids.

Speakman also spoke of the importance of values, long-term strategic planning across all aspects of the club, and of an approach to player development that emphasises an individual young players strengths, the different speeds at which players reach their potential, and the need for differentiation and personalisation within training and development plans.

Borussia Dortmund v Club Brugge KV: Group F - UEFA Champions League
Speakman was key to the development of 17-year-old Jude Bellingham of Borussia Dortmund, now playing in UEFA Champions League
Photo by Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

In the PDP interview, embedded below, he credits his parents, both teachers, with having instilled in him an interest in developing the talents of others and a passion for continually learning and improving his knowledge and skills, which is an ethos many will welcome at the Academy of Light.

The central challenge for Speakman, in what is a step-up in terms of the remit in his supposed new role as Sporting Director, will be how he manages relations between himself and the new manager.