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Full Transcript: Sunderland’s Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman on the way forward for SAFC

Speaking in an interview with, Kristjaan Speakman gave updates on the contract offers made to existing players, SAFC Ladies, the U23s, player recruitment, the fanbase and more. Here’s the full transcript.

What is your overall assessment of the 20/21 season?

KS: I think your overall assessment will always go back to the most recent thing that has happened which is obviously a disappointing result to conclude the season. I think you can’t get away from the fact that we’re in a performance environment and then when you don’t perform and get the outcome that you want disappointment is going to be the feeling. I think over the next couple of weeks we’ll be able to move away from the disappointment and start looking to the review and evaluation process, which in essence has already started. We can’t let that detract away from all the other great things that have occurred this season to date. I appreciate a lot of those things are behind the scenes, things that are going to be foundations to success in the future but ultimately, we also 100% recognise the need for the club to have a winning team and for us to get promoted.

Discounting the wide range of implications from the pandemic, I think it’s fair to say that this wasn’t a normal season, there’s been so much happening hasn’t there? Both on and off the pitch.

KS: I think it’ll probably be the most unique season of my career. I certainly hope it calms down a little bit from what this season has been.

On a personal note it’s fantastic to come to Sunderland, I’ve been made to feel really, really welcome by everybody both inside the club and in the community. I think the fanbase in general understand what we’re trying to do and hopefully, through our clear communication and the different avenues that we’ve gone with that, people understand that it’s going to be a long-term project.

Where we want to get to is harder from where we’re starting, so that is going to be a piece of work. You’ve had everything occur in a very short space of time, we’ve had a second half of the season where we’ve played a game on average every 3.7 days. We’ve had the covid spell, the transfer window, we’ve had a new head coach as well. Changing over the organisational structure of how we operate and hopefully that’s going to help us going into next season and into the future.

New Sunderland Manager Press Conference Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

We may not see those structural and infrastructure changes immediately, especially for the supporters externally. But there something moving forward that will almost help us indefinitely. It won’t be something that will assist us for this summer, but in every summer and every transfer window moving forward...

KS: Certainly, you try and have an efficient and effective operation on a day-to-day basis to drive performance across all the teams, development of all individuals, players and staff. You try and have that blueprint of success and as much as we’d all like to be able to adapt and make those changes in a really, really quick timeline, we understand everything nowadays is a click of a button and anything can transform quite quickly.

When you’re talking about organisational culture, structure 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 won’t be operating at 100% of what we think we can do, we think that in the coming years we will. But we’re at the start of that journey, we’ve been really impressed with the work that James and Stuart have been putting, their collaboration as well putting us into the best possible position this summer.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The off-season has started with the retained list. There’s been a lot of experienced players leave the club, we wish them well of course, but there have been some big decisions taken...

KS: I think those decisions will always bring scrutiny because everyone will always have a slightly different view on how that player has contributed in a positive or not-so-positive fashion. I think what we’ve tried to do is set out where we want to be, what we want the team to be and we’ve evaluated the players and there’s obviously a lot of factors that go into that.

It’s always going to be a difficult position because you’re dealing with people that you spend a lot of time in close proximity, so it’s never going to be easy to detach yourself from those individuals.

Supporters see them for games, whereas we see them every day as colleagues, they’ve got families, their contract of employment is coming to an end and you’ve got to try and deal with that in a very sensitive manner. I think also the difficult thing with this group is that when you’ve had a group that’s nearly achieved then obviously the temptation is try to retain the status quo and we just felt that for the long-term benefit of the football club, we just needed to make a slight change of direction and we felt that we’d be better served with different players in certain positions.

You’ve also got to give those guys credit because it was only a few months ago that we were on the train back up from Wembley with the first cup for the club in nearly 50 years. We’re really grateful for their involvement and it’ll be the same, a lot of the work that’s been done by those guys will be the foundation for hopefully their future success.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

What do these decisions tell us about our recruitment model moving forward. What is it from a squad perspective you’ll be looking to add this summer?

KS: I think ultimately what we’ve spent a lot of time on behind the scenes is try and identify what the identity of the club is, we’re doing more work over the summer on that piece of work.

We’ve got a little bit of a draft in term of what that should be, we have a football philosophy and a game model behind that, and while we may not have seen that as consistently as we would’ve like, what we do need to do is recruit players which are going to be a better fit to that.

Ultimately that’s going to be the bedrock of the decisions that’s been made over the last fortnight, so we need to ensure we’ve got the right players to execute the game plan.

We’ve got a period of time now to assess players in the market and hopefully make the right moves to start to build that squad.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

We saw that on Saturday, an incredibly powerful 45 minutes. How important is it to build a team that represents and excites such a powerful fanbase?

KS: We have done a lot of work and I’ve done a lot of work to understand what the city is about and the identity of the city.

I think you want to build a football club that represents the city and a football philosophy that is entwined in everything that goes on in the city and I think that’s really important.

What you saw on Saturday I think is, when the team plays a certain style and a certain way, which would probably be the best example of what we want Sunderland to be in the future and how powerful and responsive the fanbase are to it and I think it’s a collaborative venture.

I think if we can bring that game style every single week to The Stadium of Light, we know we’ve got an unbelievable support base that’s going to turn up to watch the games, then we should be a really powerful effective team at home.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Four players will be offered new deals – Denver Hume, Luke O’Nien, Charlie Wyke and Aiden McGeady. It’s important that we reach a timely resolution with those players isn’t it, one way or another...

KS: We’ve been in discussions with those guys and their representatives and it’s always going to be a difficult period because they are players that have done well for us, hence we want to re-engage with them.

But then obviously because they’ve done well for us, then there are other guys who are saying ‘these have done well for Sunderland’ and are also interested in them.

It’s going to be a piece of work where we want to try and reduce the timeline as quick as possible, and therefore it helps it will help with our platform on where we are going and who we might be looking at in the future months.

We feel they can all contribute to Sunderland in the future and therefore hopefully we’ll be able to get them over the line.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Under 23’s just fell short in their quest for promotion, but what a fantastic season it’s been for the development side...

KS: We’ve been really pleased with that group, all of the staff – coaches have all worked incredibly hard behind the scenes to try and turn round the fortunes of that group.

It’s well documented that they had a long period of time with not getting the result. They’ve had an incredible period of time over the second half of the season, we feel the team has played slightly more to the Sunderland way that we want.

They’ve got the benefits of getting the rewards out of that and that’s giving them a bit of momentum.

We had a fantastic game down at Selhurst Park, and again it was another demonstration of how the fans make the environment to try and inspire the player.

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.

Crystal Palace U23 v Sunderland U23: Premier League 2 Play-Off Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

We’re keeping our fingers crossed for SAFC Ladies, and their application to join tier 2 of the women's game...

KS: ’ve been on record and Steve Davison has been on record saying how important the ladies team, the RTC programme and ladies football is for the region, and [how] important [it is] for the football club. We’re obviously awaiting the outcome of that application.

It’s been a really difficult process because the timeline that has been provided to gather all the evidence together and the information and the presentation was extremely short.

We felt that we prioritised that area and put the most that we possibly could into it, to put ourselves into a really good position.

The work that Steve and Leanne Cowperthwaite have done to be able to pull that together has hopefully put us in a really good position. What we’ve got to try and ensure is that if we get the tier 2 status next season, we’re prepared and ready to go, and if we don’t, we’re going to have to work and achieve on the pitch and we’re just as determined with either outcome.

How excited are you for the future of the first team, the academy and the ladies?

KS: I’m as enthused as I was when I walked through the door on December 5th.

I think it’s an incredible project, it’s an incredible club in a vibrant up-and-coming city.

The best thing that I’ve probably experienced is the fans engagement – which is probably one of the later things I’ve experienced. You come away from the Lincoln game and you start to be inspired about what Sunderland could be moving forward.

Like I’ve said, and Steve has said and Kyril has gone on record [to say], it’s not going to be something that will turn overnight, but what everybody in the community and the fanbase can expect from us is really diligent hard work over the summer months, the winter months and the autumn months to make sure we deliver on this project - and we won’t stop at anything to try and make sure we achieve that.


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