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Sustainability, Identity & Progressive Ideologies: My vision for Sunderland AFC

Tom Atkinson takes an in-depth look at how Sunderland can become a bigger, better, more sustainable, profitable, productive and successful club in the future.

Sunderland AFC

There’s a moment in the new season of Sunderland ‘Til I Die where Charlie Methven says to Netflix cameras that:

I think the people of Sunderland and the region, the fan base, have given Stewart and I the benefit of the doubt, but I think it’s on a pretty short lease. I think that if we don’t get things right, reasonably quickly that benefit of the doubt will be withdrawn and replaced by very heavy scrutiny and a lot of pressure.

Methven’s words are almost prophetic, they highlight the crux of the matter that has since haunted the owners after last season’s disappointment - the fact Stewart Donald noted early in his tenure, “it’s vital that we go up.”

Of course, Sunderland didn’t go up, and ever since there has been a shift in momentum on Wearside. That initial “benefit of the doubt” has melted away to be replaced by a real sense of disappointment and even vexation at times. The fact that the ownership didn’t “get things right” as Methven put it, means that the “heavy scrutiny” and “pressure” from the fans has most certainly been realised.

At times, the atmosphere has been quite toxic this season and, truthfully, neither owners nor fans have really covered themselves in glory. The ownership’s lack of communication and action post play-off heartbreak was a bitter disappointment while, in my opinion, fans’ vociferous displeasure that ended up with a section of the fanbase urging Stewart Donald to sell the club was also a step too far.

Both parties could have done more to ensure the initial work implemented to level the sinking ship was able to be built upon this summer. For the ownership it needed to be more expeditious action taken last summer to help Jack Ross reshape his squad - something he struggled to achieve after losing Josh Maja if we’re being honest. For the fans, it was perhaps about a more structured and measured critique.

Ultimately, though, that’s all in the past and now we must look to the future.

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

Charlie Methven’s evening with the Seaburn Supporters Branch last season, which is also aired in the second season of Netflix’s docuseries, raises another interesting point that, along with the previously mentioned dialogue, set my mind thinking about the future of our club.

When talking about the club’s need to become financially independent, Methven argued that:

If it’s run out of its own revenues [the club], those revenues are your revenues. They’re the fans’ revenues. And that makes if the fans’ club. Once it’s being funded by a rich man, it’s not your club, it’s his club. And if you’re worried about being irrelevant, you become irrelevant at that point.

Donald and Methven are wealthy individuals, but they’re not wealthy enough to splurge on bankrolling a club to the Premier League - and to be fair, that’s something they argued from the onset of their ownership.

Sunderland need to be the leading club in the country in terms of structure, recruitment, and self-sufficiency in order to buck the trend and forge a path to success without unsustainable mountains of debt accrued in the search of Premier League fortunes.

As such, if I could model what I would love to see happen at Sunderland, it would look something like this...

Liverpool FC v Chelsea FC - Premier League Photo by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

Structure

Over the course of the last year or so many have argued the need for Sunderland to hire someone capable of bridging the gap between the boardroom and the dugout.

If there’s one issue that STID2 highlights for me, it’s that Sunderland lack someone capable of liaising effectively between Jack Ross and Stewart Donald.

Charlie Methven controlled the commercial, marketing, and communications teams when working with the club, and it will be interesting to see whether his ambitious and direct approach has had a positive impact on the club financially. However, in terms of football operations, it felt as though Stewart Donald struggled with the enormity of the challenge in front of him, despite trying his utmost to do well.

Of course hiring a Director of Football would cost the club money. But, in hiring a good director, the club would theoretically stand to profit from his decisions. Would an astute director have better helped the club’s recruitment approach last season? Possibly so. As such, Sunderland could potentially have been in a better position to achieve promotion? Potentially, yes.

Coventry City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images

Sunderland feel like they need someone to implement a footballing strategy throughout the club - one that transcends individual managers.

Phil Parkinson replacing Jack Ross hurt the club for a number of weeks as the squad took time to adjust to his methods. This period of poor results could be the difference between promotion and another season in League One, which would again cost the club an enormous amount of money.

Instead, it would be refreshing to see Sunderland play with an ethos that gets fans into the stadium and off their seats. A fast-paced, attacking style with a young squad can be played in a variety of ways by different managers, but it could be Sunderland’s identity - a lasting plan that managers have to emulate or evolve in some way.

This idea of an overarching identity could then allow the club to better plan a whole host of other aspects like managerial and coaching appointments, training regimes, recruitment, player development, marketing campaigns, communications, and many more. By having an overarching understanding of what you’re trying to achieve on the pitch, you enable other departments and areas of the club to better do their job.

I always end up highlighting Dortmund’s Michael Zorc in articles like this one, but he sums up perfectly what a footballing-focused director can bring to the club. In an article on Slate adapted from “Masters of Modern Soccer: How the World’s Best Play the Twenty-First-Century Game” by Grant Wahl, Zorc notes:

I am responsible for the whole football department, for recruiting the squad for Borussia Dortmund—the players and sometimes the coach as well—and taking care of the whole group and organizing everything around the games.

I’m also responsible for the philosophy from the first team to the youth teams, discussing it with the coach, and the youth teams have to follow how the first team is playing. Our philosophy is linked to our region, a working-class region. So it has to be daring, it has to be attacking. The fans don’t like it when the team plays like chess on the field. That’s a very important point.

More specific to the professional team, I am responsible for, let’s say, human resources—for buying players, selling players, prolonging contracts, and so on. I’m on top of the scouting department and taking care of players, so that they have someone they can talk to besides the coach.

So I am always with the team during the matches. I attend all the training sessions. Not for the whole time, but maybe before or after training I will have lunch or dinner with the team, so that you are there, so they know somebody from the club is taking care.

It feels like Sunderland need an intelligent, coy, and motivated member of staff to do just that.

Borussia Moenchengladbach v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga Photo by Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Recruitment

Regarding recruitment, Sunderland need to be intelligent with their approach to transfers. If the finances of English football continue on their current trajectory then Sunderland will have to rely on shrewd business in order to stave off the need for debt in the pursuit of glory.

That being said, Sunderland also need to be mindful of the fact that several clubs who have effectively become ‘selling clubs’ now find themselves in difficult situations. Southampton are the prime example despite being a club many Sunderland fans would have liked to emulate in years gone by - myself included.

Recently, Southampton’s managing director, Toby Steele, spoke with the BBC and was pretty frank with his explanation as to how the club lost £39.3 million in 2018/19 - a drop from over £75 million of profit registered the year before. Steele said this wasn’t a major issue in the club’s opinion, arguing that some profits hadn’t been accounted for in those figures.

The host, Adam Blackmore, wasn’t so sure and quizzed Steele about the club’s transfer liabilities of £64 million moving forward whilst also subtly raising the point that Southampton have effectively become dependent on shifting players as both a financial means of stability, but also as a way to develop their squad. Subsequently their decision to loan players out instead of selling them due to lack of interest had effectively ‘hamstrung’ the club’s ability to strengthen the squad and challenge for success.

Southampton have become a selling club that can’t quite sell, and that’s something my dream vision of Sunderland would have to watch out for.

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Southampton - Premier League - Molineux Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images

As much as selling top talent brings a certain level of financial gain, Southampton are showing that constantly moving talented players on from the club is a double-edged sword.

For all the income produced, club’s can seemingly become reliant on the incessant need to replace those that have left whilst also looking ahead as to who should be sold next. In turn, Southampton, for example, have taken their eye off the ball somewhere along the line. The big money sales haven’t translated into big money profits and the club has stagnated somewhat.

Furthermore, Sunderland is a city that perhaps lacks the cosmopolitan vibe that rich young footballers seemingly long for - though some of us still thoroughly love the place. As such, the club needs to be inventive in its approach to molding a team capable of battling at the top end of English football.

Speaking to Calciomercato, Edwin van der Sar - the CEO of Ajax - made a point that seems like it could be attributed directly to Sunderland’s struggles:

Ajax’s goal is to develop these talents to become champions like Cruijff, Bergkamp, Seedorf and recently De Jong and De Ligt. Ajax is partly dependent on players from youth teams. When you don’t have the opportunity to buy established stars, you have to be awake and make sure you get to the top differently. So we work hard to help players improve. The goal is the same for everyone: prepare them for the first team, preferably with an international status.

Sunderland have previous in developing impressive talent. Martyn Waghorn, Jordan Henderson, Jordan Pickford, George Honeyman, and Josh Maja are the most obvious names, but Sunderland could arguably have added to that list had we trusted in our young talents.

There’s a case to be made that Sunderland’s reluctance to develop a larger pool of young talent has hurt our chances at future success. In seasons gone by the club have failed to properly develop young talent; the likes of Bali Mumba, Denver Hume, Anthony Patterson, Ethan Robson, Elliot Embleton, and Benji Kimpioka could all have used short-term moves away from the club to develop - perhaps it would have helped fast-track their development?

The North East of England has thousands of young footballers. My perfect club would harness that huge pool of talent, implement pathways to develop progress, and give young players a chance to break into the first team whenever possible alongside astute investment that could bring a return on the initial expenditure.

Image: Getty Images

Self-Sufficiency

Marry the prior two points together and it’s clear to see that I want a club that can be self-sufficient in time. It’s not a fast-track to success, but it’s a plan that keeps Sunderland true to its origins whilst simultaneously setting the club apart in the modern era.

Like Methven noted in STID2:

If it’s run out of its own revenues [the club], those revenues are your revenues. They’re the fans’ revenues. And that makes if the fans’ club. Once it’s being funded by a rich man, it’s not your club, it’s his club.

Improving matchday profits, commercial income, and other revenue streams is important for Sunderland’s future, and will be vital in our search for self-sufficiency - but alone they will never be enough to run the club entirely.

As such, Sunderland need to look both to the past and the future in the search for sustainability and success.

The thing that makes our club so special are the fans and the community. Sunderland needs to be a club centered on that. Take Zorc’s thoughts about creating an identity to match the region and that’s what I think our club needs to focus on.

A people that look to one another for support - a club that looks within to develop its squad. A passionate community that give their all - a passionate style of play that reciprocates the fans’ zeal.

Creating a vision and an identity for the club, in my opinion, is what will allow Sunderland to be successful once again. It gives the club a purpose, and it allows the club’s departments to understand the direction in which the club is moving.

The club also need to also modernise, though, too. They need forward-thinking people advising the club’s hierarchy, a cutting-edge staff using data analysis to inform decision making; an organisational structure that allows the club to implement and realise long-term planning. It’s not a cheap short-term option, but it’s fundamental to developing sustainability and realising the club’s desire to be successful once more.

And that, in a nutshell, is my dream vision for Sunderland AFC.