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Potential salary caps and limited squad sizes: Sunderland’s future in League One

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A third season in League One combined with potential EFL regulations on salary caps and squad sizes could see Sunderland forced to alter their approach. But will the club rise to the occasion and find success?

Oxford United v Coventry City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

As the fiscal fallout from Covid-19 continues to impact football, recently the EFL put forward plans to help “reset” football in the EFL due to the potential of a £200 million hole in clubs’ finances.

A major component of the plans was the introduction of salary caps to help teams further down the footballing pyramid find stability moving forward:

League One and League Two clubs would have to operate under squad salary caps, according to proposals put forward by the English Football League.

Third-tier sides would be given a £2.5m ceiling for salaries, while the sum would be £1.25m for the fourth tier.

Furthermore, the proposal also suggests that clubs might be required to limit the size of their squads:

Meanwhile, clubs would be given a vote on the introduction of maximum 20-man squads.

If approved, it would mean only 20 senior professionals at each club, with eight homegrown players - those produced from the club’s academy system - within that group.

With Sunderland set to spend a third season in the third tier of English football, there’s a very good chance that Phil Parkinson’s side will be impacted by these plans in more ways than one.

Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Would McGeady be one of the first players set to leave?
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Sunderland are believed to be currently spending somewhere between £10-12 million on wages each year. As such, the EFL’s proposal could prove to be a major problem for the club who would have to quickly restructure their wage bill in order to comply with the proposals - though there are suggestions that sides would be given one season’s grace to get their finances in order.

Dropping the wage bill by 75% or more is an enormous task, and what’s more, trying to negotiate the allowance will also be incredibly difficult. If you divide £2.5 million by 52 weeks, you end up with a maximum weekly expenditure of around £48,000, which divided by a maximum squad size of 20 players come down to just over and average wage of £2,400 per week. Of course, some players will earn more than that and others will earn less, but overall it will be a tough balancing act to perfect.

It could be argued that with so many players out of contract this summer Sunderland are in a position to potentially make inroads with this potential new requirement. However, it will take a lot of successful negotiating and planning to organize the squad for the 2020-21 season, and that could prove to be difficult - especially considering some of Sunderland’s squad will be on big wages.

Shrewsbury Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Grigg is touted to be on big wages by League One standards.
Photo by James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images

Moving into a league levelled in terms of financial power, Sunderland will have to become incredibly shrewd and strategic in the manner in which they recruit players potentially capable of lifting the side into the Championship.

Sunderland hold an advantage in terms of the club’s stature and history, but it is likely that we will no longer be able to use financial power to fund a crack at the title. Instead, the club will now need to be incredibly deliberate and methodical in the manner in which they organise themselves.

The recruitment team will need to be incredibly efficient and decisive in their player recruitment. Sunderland will now be forced to look for talent who can likely earn just as much elsewhere in the league, and with reduced squad sizes, Sunderland will have to ensure that players brought into the club are done so in order to enhance the squad with immediate effect... all on a massively reduced budget.

Furthermore, the scouting department will be at a disadvantage due to the limited number of games played this calendar year. Data analysis and utilising contacts could well be the order of the day as Sunderland try to improve a squad that could be torn apart by players leaving for pastures new.

Now more than ever, Sunderland need an identity and a clear strategy both on and off the pitch as the club plan for life in League One.

Soccer - International Friendly - Italy v England - Juventus Stadium
Jim Rodwell will need to help Sunderland formulate a clear and effective strategy.
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Amidst the worry that Sunderland could become trapped in League One due to financial constraints, there are several small positives to take from what is undoubtedly a worrying situation.

As already noted, Sunderland are still a big draw. With top training facilities, a rich history, a passionate fanbase, and a big stadium, players will look at Sunderland as an opportunity to prove themselves. The likes of Chris Maguire and Luke O’Nien have done just that, and there will be others drawn to the proposition of showing their talent on Wearside instead of other teams in similar positions.

Another positive stems from the proposal that of the club’s squad of twenty players, eight must be homegrown within the club’s Academy. Denver Hume and Lynden Gooch would automatically count for the side, but this would also give the likes of Bali Mumba, Ethan Robson, Elliot Embleton, Ruben Sammut and others a chance to break into the first-team.

Back in 2017, Manchester City “carried out research showing that 83% of players in the quarter-finals of the Champions League over the previous 10 years had played first-team football from the age of 17.” Affording Sunderland’s talented youngsters time on the pitch with more experienced players can only be a good thing.

Finally, the last positive is that this proposal to limit spending and squad sizes might just be the catalyst Sunderland need to get their act together. Over the course of the last several years Sunderland have felt like the proverbial rudderless ship. No direction and no plan. However, now the club might well be forced to act within a specific set of parameters, there might be a chance for the club’s hierarchy to better plan their approach. It offers the club a chance to be intelligent, progressive, and sustainable by design... whether the club rise to the challenge remains to be seen.