Late on Friday night I was sat in my home office at my PC and stumbled upon a Youtube video from January, in which the men behind the slick, well-oiled operation that is Brentford FC outlined their club’s philosophy when it comes to how they operate - and, perhaps most importantly, the way that they recruit and sell talented players.
I’ve included the video below - I implore you to watch it for yourself. In short: what they stand for as a club is practically everything that Sunderland should aspire to be.
That shouldn’t be seen as a dent to the ego of our fans, because it’s absolutely true - if Sunderland are to ever reach the Premier League again AND become a thriving, self-sustaining football club over the long term, we will have to adopt an approach similar to the one we’re seeing from Brentford, something they set in motion five years ago.
I’m not saying we should scrap the academy and go down the B team route, but instead look at ways we can be clever with our recruitment, perhaps in ways that other League One clubs simply aren’t able to due to a lack of resources.
Our mentality as a club and as a fanbase has to change when it comes to the recruitment of new players - how we do it, with an acceptance that we’ll be looking to increase their value and move them on down the road, but all for the greater good.
This came to the fore just last week, when rumours began to emerge that we were on the verge of signing Aiden O’Brien - a Republic of Ireland international forward who has just left his boyhood club, Millwall, following the expiration of his contract.
Once we had all scratched our heads, thought about it for a second and then asked ourselves “well... who’s he?” We headed off to Google, tapped his name into the search bar and took a quick look at his track record.
On paper, nothing spectacular - bar a couple of really strong seasons, he’s not a particularly prolific forward. Some fans baulked at the suggestion we were signing this player that most of us had never heard of, never mind seen in action.
Yet, the data tells us that this player is good, and that he’s almost certainly going to be a shrewd acquisition. Put aside the fact that Millwall fans absolutely love him and haven’t got a bad word to say about him - in analytical terms, O’Brien is very impressive.
He’s a good age, he’s got a good character, he’s one of the hardest working forwards from the Championship in the last three seasons, and he’s versatile across the front. Football statisticians I’ve spoken to since his arrival are very impressed by Sunderland’s decision to take a calculated risk on a player whose data shows is a very good forward at League One level. It’s a step in the right direction.
We’ve also got to become more accepting of our status and position in the food chain. Brentford boss Thomas Frank remarks bluntly in the interview above that “we will always be a selling club” - and you could probably say that, unless you’re in the elite bracket of clubs, that’s all you’ll ever be. Once you recruit a good player, and they play well and you’ve developed them into a more valuable asset, clubs higher up the totem pole will come circling and you’ll have no choice but to sell.
What happens next is most important. As a club you have to be prepared for the fact that not only was the fact that this player is leaving always inevitable, but you’ve already got your replacement either in mind or already at the club. It’s a circle that, under the right leadership and guidance, never stops producing new talented players.
If a player leaves, the mentality of the fans has to be one of acceptance. This is simply what happens. Then, this is where the football club comes in - how well-prepared are they for losing their best players and replacing them? Is the organisational structure of the club in place to properly manage and control all these moving parts?
Think of it like a bus. When a driver finishes his shift and goes home, someone equally adequate steps in to carry on the job, and thus, the vehicle continues on its way to the destination it was always planning to reach.
Football clubs like Sunderland - outside the elite, hoping to claw their way back in the that group directly below the top clubs - should run in the same manner, but often don’t.
I put this largely down to stubbornness, particularly in the case of Sunderland. Currently, we have an owner who believes in an out-dated, old-fashioned way of functioning. After two years of trying to run Sunderland like we’re still in 1998, Stewart Donald has finally admitted defeat. He’s stepped back and handed over the reins. The sycophantic old guard of Coton and Hill have gone. We now have a chance to get with the times and bring our way of working up to speed, regardless of who the owner or CEO is.
Ask yourself: how many of Sunderland’s current first team squad would we be able to shift on for significant sums of money - money significant enough to not only help cover the operating losses that we make each year, but also to bring in players of equal or better ability?
We’re talking about a very, very small group. Jordan Willis, maybe? Luke O’Nien, perhaps? If Embleton gets fit and becomes and important first teamer then I can definitely see him making the club a bit of money down the line. After that, though, I’m struggling.
Fundamentally, we are flawed. At some point things must change.
We have to get smarter, faster, better, slicker. We have to have a structure in place, from owner to manager to the players to the fans, who buy into this way of operating. If we can do that, we will make our way back to the Premier League one day - only this time, we’ll be far better prepared to deal with being able to operate on both a competitive and financial level with any modicum of success.
Brentford are a club who Sunderland should aspire to be more like, and what all Sunderland supporters should aspire for their football club to be. Competitive, but only because we’ve been clever in how we’ve shaped up to get there. Self-sufficient, sustainable, profitable, smart.
This isn’t Premier League Sunderland any more - who could afford to pay big money and big wages to not only appease the supporters and their deep-rooted need for known names, but to help stave off relegation and sending ourselves into an inevitable financial black hole - this is League One Sunderland, who make huge losses year-on-year, who will always have this issue hampering their ability to move forward if we don’t do something radical to change the way we operate.
We can’t just spend our way to promotion, as shown by the last two attempts we’ve made to get promoted - we have to spend our money wisely, and must recruit players we know we’ll end up losing one day. We have to be accepting of this, but do so in the good faith that our club is primed to deal with setbacks when they come our way.
Whilst very few of our supporters want this owner to remain in charge, we at least have a chance this summer to become more like Brentford and less like, well, Sunderland. This is a huge opportunity for us to bring ourselves up to speed.
Food for thought.