There’s been a lot of talk over the last couple of weeks surrounding a very interesting comment Lee Johnson made in a post-match interview about the long-term “project” he is now a part of at Sunderland.
The comment was made on the back of a rather dismal and pointless draw against Bradford to finish our Pizza Cup group stage, which unfortunately came as the emphatic finale of a horrid run of six games in which we lost three straight league games, and had an embarrassing FA cup bow-out.
Johnson’s presser was met with an intense amount of fury and criticism from much of the SAFC fan base and this left me a bit confused.
Isn’t this what we were all clamoring for the last decade? A long-term plan. Sustainable infrastructure. Next-gen analytics and recruitment. Young, local talent getting first-team action. I thought this was the project we all wanted? And I thought we all knew the risk and inconsistency that would at times come along with it.
Since the Kyril Louis Dreyfus reign began, and even before it officially began with signing Johnson on through to 2023, we saw evidence of this long-term project that we all wanted finally showing us its light.
The installation of a sporting director and head coach as separate roles was a major indicator of a long-term, future-focused, analytic informed move to get Sunderland back where they belong. And Speakman wasted no time in telling us how that would happen.
In his initial interview, he said:
When you’re talking about organisational culture, structured processes, they just take a much longer period of time to do.
The key to it is to get the prioritisation right and one of the first things that we’ve look to change is how we go about our player recruitment operations, and how that is integrated with the data to make sure it’s a real, evidence-based approach.
We saw the project take shape with the initial retain/release list this summer, and the type of players brought into the team - young, versatile players mixed in with bargain deals for players with higher league talent maybe needing a place to rebuild their career.
Speakman also talked about the importance of giving bright academy prospects a pathway to first-team time, rather than losing them on the cheap to the giants further up the pyramid.
Right after our U23 lads fell just short of promotion at the end of last season he commented:
Everyone is gutted that we’ve fallen short by a small margin but each of the players we’re extremely proud of them and we’ve got a cohort in that group that’s going to come into the first team squad for the start of next season.
Music to the ears if the words were true… and they were!
For the first time in quite a while, the young talented academy players have been brought in and given a chance to shine. And shine they have. Embleton, Neil, and even on-loan Jack Diamond are beginning to show that this “project” is well underway and worth waiting out some temporary inconsistency. These players were rewarded with long-term extensions to show the club are serious about this pathway (Diamond through ‘24, Neil and Embleton through ‘25) giving the next wave of youngsters a real goal to chase!
Kyril Louis-Dreyfus’ first public words as Sunderland owner are probably the most important for us as fans to hang on to over the course of the season, especially as we hit bumps in the road on our way. In that press conference, he said:
It’s going to be a long-term plan, hopefully the fans and club can take it together which will hopefully bring better times for the club… I think it’s very important in football not to panic.
A key moment will be this season. I truly believe we can get promoted this season because we have a very strong squad, a good manager and the league is still open to play. However, we need to follow our long-term plan.
We can’t panic if we fall short this year. We believe the club needs to be rebuilt from the foundation and it starts with the appointments of Kristjaan, Steve and Lee. There will be multiple appointments following in the next weeks. We’ve had the academy leadership team announced this week and we slowly start to rebuild.
A key theme from a year ago - “it’s very important in football not to panic”. The rebuild and the project has been good on its word this far.
Real, meaningful investments in the academy, recruitment, coaching staff, backroom team. And it’s led to someone moments of really good football in the process.
The plan isn’t fully intact yet, but I think there’s enough evidence in the early days that we’ve got enough talent for promotion, but more importantly, we’ve got a foundation for a long and successful end to the beautiful project.