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Why Sunderland’s sustainability is about far more than money

The word ‘sustainability’ has been shouted about for the past few seasons, and it’s about far more than the next quarter’s profit and loss statement. It’s about building a football club that can operate successfully – and ultimately sustain itself in the long-term.

Sunderland v Accrington Stanley - Sky Bet League One Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The word ‘sustainability’ has been bandied about for a few years now in relation to Sunderland AFC.

The original plan that Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven put forward in their early days was to make the club ‘fully sustainable’, while upon taking control of the club at the beginning of the year Kyril Louis Dreyfus described his vision to bring ‘sustainable, long-term success to the club’.

It is a rhetoric that has continued from both Kristjaan Speakman and Lee Johnson – the club has to be sustainable.

It’s widely assumed that ‘sustainability’ in this regard is financial, and of course, that is hugely important.

Over the past 15 or so years, we’ve spent – wasted – an incredible amount of money both in terms of transfer fees and salaries on players who simply didn’t justify such inflated price tags. The players we’ve brought into who we’ve subsequently been able to sell for a profit have been few and far between.

The previous version of sustainability, however, wasn’t compatible with running a successful football club. It was a cost-driven exercise to slash outgoings and maximise incomings with little regard to the long-term of the club. This may have been necessary for the club’s immediate survival, and no doubt there was some fat to be cut, however, we were only focusing on being sustainable come the end of the week.

We sold a hugely talented group of young players for a pittance to fix lifts, failed to get key youngsters such as Josh Maja on contract, and signed Will Grigg for a ridiculous amount of money.

That wasn’t sustainability, and it’s likely scarred a lot of supporters when they hear the current management mention the word.

It’s not code for ‘cost cutting’ or ‘sell everyone!’.

Building a sustainable football club – a sustainable business – requires an awful lot more.

And from a football perspective, we’re seeing a concerted effort to build a genuinely sustainable football club – one that has a deep, lasting impact, that’s a mile away from the ‘sustainability by cost-cutting’ approach we suffered from in previous years.

Manchester United U23 v Manchester City EDS: Premier League 2
Joe Hugill was one of a number of players let go from the academy in recent years
Photo by Manchester United/Manchester United via Getty Images

Sustainability requires investment

Investing in sustainability may seem to be a contradictory phrase, however, the type of sustainability we’re seeing being built into Sunderland AFC today can only be derived from investment.

The new recruitment model the club has embedded has seen the arrival of a number of players who, in all probability, will go on to be sold for significantly higher sums than we paid for them.

From a financial perspective, that brings with it an element of sustainability, however, sustainability isn’t confined to the pounds and pennies.

In the recent club podcast, Kristjaan Speakman spoke once more about sustainability, and also talked about the number of new recruits that had come in – and are about to come in – to key positions within the football department.

These are newly created roles, but imperative if we are to recruit well and profitably. It makes complete financial sense – the combined annual salaries of the whole set-up will likely be less than Will Grigg’s salary. And, ultimately, who’s going to drive more value for the club?

We’re seeing a concerted effort to put the AoL and youth set up at the heart of the club, not as the irritating afterthought it’s been treated as by previous regimes. Young players need to see a path forward, a set-up that will develop their career and give them the opportunities they need.

That forward-looking, long-term planning is critically important in building a sustainable football club.


The energy vampire? Really?

I remember reading Mike Calvin’s excellent book Living On The Volcano, which conveys the day-to-day realities for a number of football managers, and being impressed with his description of how Everton operated under David Moyes.

In the management team’s room at Everton, they had names of players all over the wall, position by position. The current first-team players were on there, and underneath were listed their understudies at the club. Youth prospects were also noted along with the date they were predicted to be ready for first-team consideration, and there were also a number of potential replacements for each position that they could sign should the player be sold, get injured or simply lose form.

The succession planning and long-term vision they had was incredible – certainly when compared to what we’ve witnessed over the past couple of decades. It enabled them to truly scout the potential replacements. No panic buying, no scrapping around at the last minute, it was measured, deliberate and well planned.

It was sustainable. It was successful. And it only came due to the management team being in the club for a sustained period of time – in Moyes’ case at Everton, 11 years.

Newcastle United v Everton
A disaster at Sunderland, but Moyes did fantastic work at Everton over an 11 year period

Today, of course, it will be all computerised, but you get the sense we’re taking this long-term approach, rather than lurching from game to game hoping to get three points from somewhere.

Thankfully, it looks as though we’re moving from the ‘Wish’ version of sustainability to the ‘Harvard’ version – one that financial sustainability comes as a byproduct of activity, not as a direct consequence.

We’re seeing positive results on the field this season from our new approach to transfers and team selection, and hopefully, that will continue. There’ll be some bumps in the road undoubtedly that require a bit of patience, but ultimately it looks as if – finally – we’re on the right track.

One that is sustainable in the long term, and doesn’t require billionaires to empty a load of cash into the club every season to merely keep it afloat.


Sustainability in business – and football

Taking a slight sidestep, and to illustrate that sustainability is much, much more than just money, it’s worth mentioning that businesses across the globe are striving to make themselves – and the world they impact – more sustainable. Sunderland certainly aren’t unique in that regard.

And every good business now has an ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) agenda that drives everything they do. It’s increasingly important for investors, customers and the people who work within the businesses, because generally, people are concerned about the impact that they – and the businesses they support – have on the world around them.

The ESG strategy of many businesses are aligned to three or four of the UN’s Sustainable Development goals, of which they are 17.

1. No poverty. 2. Zero hunger. 3. Good health and wellbeing. 4. Quality education. 5 Gender equality 6. Clean water and sanitisation. 7 Affordable and clean energy. 8. Decent work and economic growth. 9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure. 10. Reduced inequalities. 11. Sustainable cities and communities. 12. Responsible consumption and production. 13. Climate action. 14. Life below water. 15. Life on land. 16 Peace, justice and strong institutions. 17. Partnerships for the goals.

A football club like Sunderland has a tremendous opportunity to impact the community and the wider fan base in an incredibly positive fashion for the long term, through drives to help end hunger, promote good health and wellbeing, provide education, reduce inequalities and creating a strong institution.

Hopefully, over the coming months and years, we’ll see SAFC become much more involved in contributing to the local community, city and region. I don’t necessarily mean in a financial sense, but just that involvement in education and socialisation, and supporting the local community and events. The club is an integral part of the community, of the city, and has an incredibly powerful position of influence.

Of course, we all want to see things to be right on the field – ultimately that affects everyone positively – and if the club can do that while supplementing it off the pitch, we could see something very special indeed.

Sunderland v Wigan Athletic - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images