We’ve only progressed a little bit in what would be the grand plan if you like, in terms of the blueprint. I appreciate we live in an era whereby everyone wants everything instantaneously, but I also think that having spoken to a lot of people who are Sunderland fans in the community, they understand the size of the task; they understand how we’re trying to go about it, it’s a long-term project and we’re hoping to deliver [not just] in the long term, but we’re hoping to deliver in the short term.
Ultimately we’re trying to deliver for those people.
The biggest message to come from Kristjaan Speakman’s interview with the club’s official podcast this week was that whilst the ‘grand plan’ is most definitely underway, patience and understanding from the fanbase will be key to how successful we ultimately become.
There has been much talk regarding what the club’s plan actually is, and whilst you have to admit that key figures like Speakman have been very consistent in the delivery of their message since he arrived at the club half a year ago, it does sometimes feel as though the message isn’t quite dripping through to some supporters, who are still perhaps used to an old way of working; one that facilitates knee-jerk reactions and short-termism.
And you cannot blame people for that. We’ve sat and watched on as multiple managers have come and gone; year after year squads have been overhauled, all in the name of trying to find the solution to the deep-rooted problems at this club.
The natural reaction, particularly during our decade in the top flight, was to rip up the plan and start from scratch if it meant we’d receive an adrenaline shot in the arm - a short-term boost to give ourselves half a chance of staving off the inevitable.
If a manager was performing badly - and many of them did - calls for a change in the dugout were usually supported by the then-owner Ellis Short.
It worked so often too - Ricky Sbragia, Martin O’Neill, Paolo Di Canio, Gustavo Poyet, Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce all took charge of Sunderland mid-season during Short’s reign and were able to steer us clear of the drop zone come the end of the season.
What seemed like a useful tactic became something akin to using sticking plasters to cover over a gaping wound - eventually, we succumbed to our injuries and paid the ultimate price. Infection spread throughout the club to the point where we almost died.
What the current guardians of the football club know they must do is to never let Sunderland back in a situation like the one we found ourselves in under Short.
There can be no more short-termism or quick fixes to deep-rooted issues.
We instead have to start from the ground up, and put building blocks in place that will secure the very future of the club for years to come.
That is why some incredibly deep thinking has to be done when considering the direction we all want to see Sunderland head in.
The club’s Sporting Director was very clear in his vision for what will lead to Sunderland becoming modern, successful and sustainable - and I truly believe that with our backing, he and his staff will make good on their promise to get us back to where we ultimately should be, which is challenging in the Premier League.
Speakman spoke about the groundwork that is going in currently which will get his team off to a good start in the summer - the physical restructuring of the Academy of Light, which requires surgical work in order to provide our many new teams and coaches to work to the peak of their abilities. Our data and analysis department will receive the financial backing needed to be able to provide the football club with what it ultimately needs - and our coaching staff from youths right to the senior side will all work towards the same goal, with the same philosophy, hopefully providing Sunderland with a structure befitting of the Academy’s category one status.
He talked about the recruitment of backroom staff members - and indicated that we’re probably only sixty percent of the way through appointing all of the people that we need.
And he also spoke about culture, teaching everyone who works for Sunderland AFC about what it means to be part of this football club; preaching our ‘philosophy’ in the hope that it trickles down to the staff beneath them, their players and their families.
But, as Speakman has been keen to stress, we’re starting from the back of the queue - and putting Sunderland at the forefront when it comes to excelling with a modern approach requires some time and patience:
Any modern organisation, whether it’s sporting or another, is going down that route and we’re trying to get at the front of that from being a little bit further back in the race, because we’ve had nothing, and trying to work as quickly as we possibly can to do it.
What’s very clear is that in all areas of the club, the use of data and analytics will be a key component in almost all decision-making, alongside good old-fashioned gut feeling and informed assessments from experienced professionals.
This is a total shift from the approach of yesteryear - no longer should we expect to see scenes such as the ones in both the Netflix documentary and the Premier Passions series, with Stewart Donald going over the manager’s head to overpay in order to sign Will Grigg, or Peter Reid whipping out his big book of players to try and find the next big thing.
Instead, players will be identified with a clearer and more thorough process behind it. Skillsets will be identified, data and analytics will be applied, and rigorous scouting will be performed in order to find out whether a player is the right type of character for the club - something Speakman went into great detail on when explaining the role of Stuart Harvey, Sunderland’s new Head of Recruitment:
Stuart’s obviously not been with us very long – he is highly motivated to try and build a model for us which us both using the subjective and the objective… watching the games and understanding how the players behave on the pitch, and obviously there are lots of things that data doesn’t tell you, and you want to get an eye on it to understand body language and things like that… what’s their character like in certain moments of the games, how vocal are they, where’s their communication.
We want to spread ourselves to be able to analyse and observe as many possible players as you can. It stands to reason that you go down a traditional video or live scouting route, you’ve got to watch a lot of games over a lot of hours.
What we’re trying to do is merge those two areas together whereby we can run data which is specific to us, so we’re not using a generic tool, we’re going “ we want this out of our right back”, so we just for example pulled together our player profiles for each of our positions, those profiles are relevant for all the age groups and are built into our coaching programme, and provides us with the opportunity to then go “we need this out of a right back”.
We can run the data, we can then go through a subjective viewpoint of getting different scouts to watch it against an assessment criteria against that profile, and then we can start to get to more of a shortlist, and we can sort, prioritise and look at that shortlist again differently.
So what you can then do is you can run the shortlist through the data again, but maybe you can tweak the dials on various things on the profile to then start to really hone down on specific players. And ultimately we’re looking for the right players for the squad, but we’re also looking for value.
So, we’re looking for the players who might perform better than maybe what the eye suggests.
You have to admit - even without seeing any evidence of this approach, it sounds a lot better and a far cry from leaving Tony Coton and Richard Hill in charge.
That’s ultimately what must change at Sunderland - when there is a situation where a key player leaves, or a manager reaches the end of their tenure or is poached away by a team higher-placed in the pyramid, the system that club works within should ensure that it’s no major setback.
It’s what Speakman refers to as a ‘top-down approach’ - ensuring that the core values of the club run right through each and every staff member, player and fan, which in turn allows Sunderland to keep moving forward; eliminating the need to constantly rebuild, year on year:
If you think about it from a top-down approach, you’ve got an identity that you’re trying to create for Sunderland, and then you’ve got a football philosophy layer underneath that, and then you’ve got a game model, and then you’re looking at players to fit the game model – if we all understand the identity and we all understand what the football philosophy is, and we all understand what the game model is that actually delivers that, then you shouldn’t be too far apart with the types of players that you’re looking for to fit it.
Therefore, you’re starting to really discuss and contemplate all the various small intricacies of that list of players. Ultimately, it has to fit a financial model and it has to meet the needs of the squad composition.
Meshed into all of that will be the functionality of the club’s academy, and hopefully providing the first team with a steady stream of able and willing players that have grown up learning about the way the club chooses to conduct itself and play football.
Currently, there is a pool of players at the club on the verge of the first-team picture that fans and club staff alike will be hoping can make a difference to the senior side.
Speakman talked up the success so far of Jack Diamond, and noted that the club are working extensively with him off the pitch to ensure that we see results on it. He spoke about the handling of Elliot Embleton, and how we palmed off a number of offers from League Two sides in the hope that we’d find him the perfect League One move - and that his development has gone just as we had hoped. He spoke about the unbelievable form of Josh Hawkes for the U23s side this season, and championed the success of Elliott Dickman and his squad which has seen them reach a Play-Off final only a year after finishing rock bottom of the table with a solitary point in 2019/20.
All of these things and more (and there are more, and I’d encourage you to listen to Speakman’s podcast a couple of times yourself so that you can digest all of the information accordingly) are things that fans want to see and hear from their club.
We want to be successful, but we also want to be forward-thinking and diligent.
We want to see our best young players do well.
We want a team on the pitch that we can be proud of.
We want our club to be the envy of others.
We want to be able to trust the people in charge.
There’s an incredibly long way to go before I can say with a degree of certainty that the club is back to where it ought to be, but right now I honestly believe that the groundwork we’re seeing put in place will get us to that point in the not-so-distant future.
Let’s just hope that the good work continues, and that Speakman and co. are given ample time to work things out. We all want success for Sunderland and we want it now, but listening to what these guys are saying and understanding the scale of the task that they are taking on should be the basis for which all opinion is rested on.
Trusting in the process and supporting the club’s current leadership team in their efforts to achieve sustainable success could prove crucial. Kristjaan and his team are making all the right noises, and we just have to trust that they’ll eventually deliver on their promises, and not join the long list of failures who have tried in the past without much success.