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Sunderland’s transfer policy: Time for radical change

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“Whilst careless ownership played a crucial part in our demise, a key factor in our failings as a club have come through our transfer policy. How many times have you seen the club pay big money for a player on ludicrous wages to then lose them for less?”

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

Is anyone else sick of watching Sunderland AFC fail? Are you sick of constantly being let down, seeing the same mistakes being made, constantly being told things will change building a sense of false hope which always results in your dreams crashing and burning into a million pieces?

The Sunderland Till I Die Netflix documentary exposed the club’s failures from top to bottom for the entire world to see; over the past four seasons no English professional club has rotted down the leagues faster than Sunderland AFC.

Fans have gone from watching a team including various international players - including supreme talents like Jermain Defoe and Yann M’Vila - to watching our centre forwards struggle to break double figures between them in the third tier of English football - not to mention breaking our record worst league position in our 141 year history.

Image: Getty Images

Whilst careless ownership played a crucial part in our demise, a key factor in our failings as a club have come through our transfer policy. How many times have you seen the club pay big money for a player on ludicrous wages to then lose them for less? Jack Rodwell, Didier N’Dong, Papy Djilobodji, Steven Fletcher and Ricky Alvarez cost us over £50 million - all of them left for nothing.

Football is becoming more and more reliant on club’s to be financially sustainable each season. The gap between leagues is expanding, the money even being spent in the Championship, for example, is monumental – Reading spent the same on wages this season as Italian Champions League side Atalanta.

If Sunderland are not going to be blessed with financial power, we need to pursue methods that will not risk the club’s future but instead increase our chances of profiting and becoming sustainable.

It is time to make radical changes regarding our approach to the transfer market. We need a set agenda and club ethos that each member of our recruitment staff adheres to – if we continue to repeat the mistakes that prompted our decline, this football club will continue to rot away.

Arsenal v Sunderland - Premier League
Jack Rodwell, a player who earned £80,000 a week to make two Championship appearences, epitomises Sunderland’s failings in the transfer market.
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

What is our current problem?

I do not want to beat around the bush here - Sunderland are absolutely useless in the transfer market. You cannot blame a single person either: De Fanti, Congerton, Hill, Coton, or the endless list of managers we have employed across the past ten years - all are culpable in some part.

Sunderland are entrenched within a cycle of overspending on players who lose the football club money. Players come in and out on a conveyor belt earning their fortunes whilst the club make a loss - sometimes losing millions of pounds by allowing players to leave for free.

What makes it worse is that Donald and his team have claimed they came in to make more sensible and financially-driven decisions to benefit the club. However, instead of turning a new leaf, they have repeated the same careless mistakes their predecessors made.

The panic buying of Will Grigg for £3 million - showcased via the documentary - was financial lunacy. We broke the League One record to sign a out of form 27-year-old when the manager himself said he was worth no higher than £1.25 million. Now he sits as third choice on a contract we cannot afford with absolutely no way of shifting him.

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Following the sacking of Jack Ross, Stewart Donald hired Phil Parkinson, knowing he would deploy a new style of football that would almost certainly exclude Will Grigg. The man who spent £3 million on a player hired a manager who would not use him - what a complete and utter waste of money.

Grigg is destined to either be paid off so he can leave on a free, or loaned out to cut losses. The club will never see that £3 million spent to secure Grigg’s services back in the club’s coffers. Other examples include handing a two-year contract to a 34-year-old finished Glenn Loovens who was then paid-off. or spending £200,000 on Jack Baldwin who is set to be released in July. We are constantly spending money we see no return on - there is no profit or justification.

The current ownership team are falling into the exact same mistakes made by their predecessors - and that’s incredibly worrying.

How can we possibly grow as a club if each year we are committing money towards players we are not seeing any return on? Each year we are seeing the same mistakes repeated: players come through the door whilst the football club gets nothing back - it simply has to change.

Sunderland v Walsall - Sky Bet League One
Having paid £3million for Will Grigg, Sunderland found it difficult to move him in January after he fell completely out of favour.
Photo by Harriet Lander/Getty Images

What radical changes should we make?

Before we sign any player, the recruitment team should ask one question: “Can we profit on this player?” If the club are going to invest money into something, they should be confident their investment is going to be worthwhile because this is how a successful business operates.

How many clubs in England are drastically declining because they have a squad full of players on big money who they can’t sell on at a profit? For clubs without luxury owners willing to spend a fortune and cover losses, they simply cannot afford to spend millions on players who end up leaving for nothing.

Sunderland should be searching for predominantly young talent across the world who they can attract on a free transfer or for a sensible transfer fee. We should be buying low, developing the players, and then selling them to a team playing in a superior league for a higher fee. We are not a Premier League club anymore, so we have to accept that each player will want to use Sunderland as a stepping stone to reach the highest level.

Instead of bringing in quick-fix loans or signing ageing players looking for one last big pay-out, the club should have a clear ethos to grow and develop talent to both improve the playing squad and our revenue. Imagine if every season we had investment from our owners in addition to revenue generated by player sales.

A good example of this would be Luke O’Nien who is arguably the best signing of the Donald era. The versatile midfielder was bought aged 23 from Wycombe for an undisclosed fee believed to be £350k or below. O’Nien is now one of Sunderland’s best players, and if the club were to sell him now he would arguably be worth over £1 million - three times what was paid to acquire his services.

This type of deal demonstrates that unknown, and less desirable, signings can sometimes be the best. Danny Collins became Sunderland captain after being signed from the National League, and George Dobson has also showed glimpses of promise after signing from relegated Walsall.

Furthermore, although he does not fit the style I am discussing, Chris Maguire being signed from relegated Bury and going on to become our best player shows that big name signings aren’t always the best options out there.

Sunderland v Tranmere Rovers - Sky Bet Leauge One
Despite being unknown to us all prior to signing, Luke O’Nien has become a fan favourite.
Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Recruitment-savvy clubs

A fantastic example of a club who are growing by operating effectively using this method are Championship side Brentford.

The Bees posses a highly credible record of buying and selling young and upcoming talents for substantial profit. Although Sunderland possess inferior funds, we could still utilise this technique on a smaller scale.

This strategy has proved to generate reliable revenue for the club, which they can reinvest into new players who are financially risk free. Brilliant examples include:

  • Neal Maupay: signed from St Etienne for £1.8 million, sold to Brighton for £20 million
  • Ezri Konsa: signed from Charlton for £2.5 million, sold to Aston Villa for £12 million
  • Scott Hogan: signed from Rochdale for £850k, sold to Aston Villa for £9.5 million
  • Andre Gray: signed from Luton for £550k, sold to Burnley for £11 million

That’s less than £6 million spent in transfer fees returning over £50 million.

Currently in their squad they have players such as Said Benrahma who cost £1.5 million from Nice and Ollie Watkins who cost £1.8 million from Exeter - both have been linked with £20 million to £30 million moves to the Premier League, which would generate further astronomical profit.

Furthermore, the club also signed duo Tariqe Fosu (24) and Shandon Baptiste (22) from our League One rivals Oxford for £2.25 million - an absolute bargain for two upcoming players.

The London-based club have gradually developed from League One up to the Championship where they currently sit fourth - firmly in with a chance of promotion to the Premier League should this season be completed.

Brentford v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet Championship - Griffin Park Photo by Tess Derry/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

Brentford do not prosper as a club by throwing big money around - instead they achieve success by having a clear and coherent ethos. They have a set way of operating, which they stick to. They do not take unnecessary risks that could damage the prosperity of the club.

A key part of Brentford’s impressive rise has been the implementation of data analysis. When searching for players, the club utilise statistics rather than the more traditional model of trusting a Scout’s verdict.

Their scouts target lower leagues for undervalued players or overseas markets such as Scandinavia and Southern Europe where players are less inflated.

It is these new forms of innovative methods that are becoming more prevalent in football as clubs look for modern ways to improve their recruitment and financial strategies.

Brentford v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship
Having scored 20 league goals already for Brentford this season, Watkins has been linked with West Ham.
Photo by Stephanie Meek - CameraSport via Getty Images

What would this mean for Sunderland’s academy?

Whilst Brentford opted to scrap their academy in favour of a B team system, I believe a thriving academy is an essential part of any football club. Sunderland have Premier League standard Category One academy status, and we have produced some magnificent talents including current England starters, Jordan Henderson and Jordan Pickford.

Developing young talent is the best option financially for any football club - why buy players if you have players good enough ready to play? Look at the past two to three seasons: Josh Maja, Joel Asoro, George Honeyman, Lynden Gooch and Denver Hume have all enjoyed prolonged spells in our starting XI.

Persisting with academy players prevents the club from signing ageing players looking for a payday and instead fills the team with hungry players trying to make a name for themselves. Granted you need experience in any team, but promoting some players from our academy each year can only be beneficial long-term.

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

Furthermore, talented youngsters making a name for themselves create relentless hype, which attracts astronomical transfer fees. Take for example Birmingham rejecting £20 million for 16-year-old Jude Bellingham who has played less than 50 senior games. Seeing figures like that in the news has to make the club seriously question how selling 16-year-old Joe Hugill to Manchester United for £250K is good business.

Achievements such as reaching the Premier League International Cup final in 2017 displays the potential of Sunderland’s academy, but instead of utilising it to its maximum potential, Stewart Donald’s regime has featured the loss of our best talent for a quick pound.

  • Sam Greenwood (ST) Signed by Arsenal for an undisclosed figure in 2018
  • Michael Woud (GK) Signed by Willem II for an undisclosed figure in 2018
  • Jacob Young (CB) Signed by Hoffenheim for an undisclosed figure in 2019
  • Logan Pye (LB) Signed by Manchester United for an undisclosed figure in 2020
  • Joe Hugill (ST) Close to signing for Manchester United for £250k this summer

Within our academy we possess players who play for their countries at youth level, and have the potential to be stars at our club. Instead of focusing on how we can develop them and giving them a clear route into first-team football, the club have lost a generation of talent - whether by an inability to fend off bigger clubs, or by design.

Moving forward, the club have to start saying no. They have to give these players a clear plan and proof that if they stay there is a future for them at Sunderland. Whose to stay we don't have the next Jude Bellingham within our ranks?

The point is that Sunderland should aspire to be a desired choice for young players, we have the infrastructure to develop them, but we lack the development plan to convince players they have a realistic route to the first-team.

If we continue to operate how we are, we will simply be a feeder club for better academies, continuing to lose potential high scale profits and the next big prospects from our first-team.

Sunderland v Shrewsbury Town - Sky Bet League One
Josh Maja scored 17 goals in 49 appearances before joining French side Bordeaux for £1.5m.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

What I have discussed above delivers no certainties, I do not claim to that these ideas are perfect, but what I will say is at least they have attempt to be inventive or different. All I want is for Sunderland to have a vision, an identity, a culture everyone at the club can get behind.

Currently all we see is repetitive failure, no matter who is in charge, which players we have, or who the owners are. Our current system or philosophy is not working, the football club is failing.

We are all sick of seeing Sunderland make the same mistakes time and time again - every Sunderland fan wants to see the club be successful. So whilst we have hit rock bottom, surely now is the time to start a revolution, a radical change in how we operate?

We have a clear choice as a club presently, we can either continue as we are, plain, mundane, traditional, lacking any form creativity or identity, or we can decide to make real changes, changes that at least attempt to drive the football club into the a new direction.

I firmly believe if we continue to repeat old habits with our recruitment and continue to destroy the academy, this football club is destined for prolonged disappointment and will never return to its former glory.