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Why Sunderland’s new sporting director is the key to finding our identity

A lot has been talked about Sunderland establishing a new identity under Kristjaan Speakman... but just what should that identity be?

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

It already seems ages since we last played. But it’s fair to say that Lee Johnson has had a good start to his time at Sunderland.

As I previously suggested, we need to keep our feet on the ground – as I believe Johnson also will. He’s talking a good game, with positive soundbites, and if Sunderland can keep it up, delivering a brand of attacking football to excite, he will have the fans right behind him.

Lincoln City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
The Lincoln game in mid December hopefully provided a sign of what’s in store under Lee Johnson
Photo by Andrew Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

What has been said on here – and in countless conversations – for a long time is how Sunderland has lost its sense of identity. We have looked on while smaller clubs, with vastly lower ambitions, as well as expectations, have climbed from mediocrity to establish themselves in the Premier League while we have sunk.

However short-lived, Southampton and Leicester have been in and around the top six of the Premier League for much of this wide-open season.

They have both been in Sunderland’s current position.

While since then, Leicester even managed the unthinkable (winning the title) having finished just one place above us the summer before.

TOPSHOT-FB-ENG-PR-LEICESTER-THA
Leicester – a club that’s had a director of football for a number of years – won the premier league in 2016 after finishing one place ahead of Sunderland the season before.
Photo credit should read LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images

Both clubs have used a director of football.

But it's to Southampton we should look for our inspiration for our overhaul.

At League One level, Southampton employed the director of football model to great effect.

It has served them well, even while managers have changed the director of football has not only proved the catalyst for success but also given the club its much-needed continuity. But that can only be successful if the club can establish an identity and a kind of player to pursue.

To an even greater extent, Liverpool have built what some consider the start of a new dynasty with Michael Edwards in the sporting director position working closely with the talented Jurgen Klopp.

Jurgen Klopp Signs A Contract Extension at Liverpool (THE SUN OUT, THE SUN ON SUNDAY OUT)
Klopp pictured with Sporting Director Michael Edwards (right)
Photo by John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

When Manchester United’s recruitment was mentioned recently to former Red Devil and now football pundit Paul Scholes, he suggested that system wouldn’t work as well at Old Trafford – partly because United ‘haven’t really got a way of playing’.

United’s problem is as much about identity as Sunderland’s.

Upon his arrival at the Stadium of Light back in 2006, Roy Keane noted that identity was a problem for the club. He commented on the bare walls, the lack of pride shown in the club’s enormous history – and set about rectifying that. Not only that, but he galvanised his teams to fight to the final minute of games and every opponent knew they were in for a battle when facing a Keane inspired Sunderland.

Soccer - Coca-Cola Football League Championship - Derby County v Sunderland - Pride Park
Everyone knew who they were facing when they played Keane’s Sunderland
Photo by Jon Buckle - PA Images via Getty Images

But as the manager’s door has constantly revolved in the decade since, it is difficult to properly say what qualities a Sunderland player should possess.

If the squad that Johnson inherited was anything to go by, it is short, slow, no physical strength, easily bullied, ultra-defensive, drab to watch and shy of goals.

None of those things seems to suggest a typical Lee Johnson side.

Of course, Johnson is working alongside a sporting director in Kristjaan Speakman, and the future vision for the club should be centred around attracting the young and the exciting, and building a new club identity.

To find that identity, the club should effectively return to its roots.

We’ve held many nicknames over the years, including the ‘Bank of England club’.

But our greatest periods of success were always based on finding and establishing young talent. We were quick to tap into the rich seam of talent north of the border. Indeed, the cup final team of 1973 boasted four Scots.

Paul Days Collection
The FA Cup winning side boasted four Scots – is this a path the new regime should follow?

Back then, Sunderland were able to attract exciting young talent because we were known to give youth a chance.

In today’s competition for talent, that can still be a draw for players.

It certainly helped set Southampton apart and could be the difference in Sunderland’s long-term success.