Sunderland AFC needs to push on in 2022.
One year into the new regime, progress has clearly been made on and off the pitch - we have a footballing identity, we have a clear purpose, we have a direction (upward) - but there’s so much more left to do.
The fans will always support teams in red and white that give their all, but the ownership and executives need to drive every aspect of the club forward.
We may be close to being on target to achieve the pre-season goals of promotion from EFL League One and consolidation in the FA Women’s Championship, but nobody should rest on their laurels. January will be crucial.
First and foremost, Lee Johnson and Mel Reay must be properly backed in securing the transfer targets needed to plug gaps caused by injury as well as improving and developing their squads for the long term. This, I expect, will be achieved through intelligent use of the loan market for short-term needs, picking up the best available out of contract players (especially in the case of the women), and spending intelligently on talent (in the case of the men).
With the development of both senior squads fully supported by the recruitment and data departments, this task should be easier than it has been in previous seasons where mid-season recruitment was done on a whim or a hope - but we need to act decisively as well as intelligently.
We’re not the only actors in the marketplace and, although we have significant advantages in terms of infrastructure and prestige over other clubs, the sales pitch to the best of the available pool of players will need to be sharp and focused.
The Academy of Light is a place you come to achieve in the short term and develop in the long term, a club where ambitious young people whose eyes are on top-flight football and international caps will see as their perfect home. But we won’t get every target, and as fans, we should hopefully have learned from the summer that a little patience often pays dividends.
Holding on to our best young talent is also going to be really important if we’re not to suffer the problems that have thwarted the club’s progress over the last few years. Losing the likes of Josh Maja and Bridget Galloway, who had come through our ranks, has arguably set us back years, particularly when it comes to prolific goalscorers.
Neve Herron and Dan Neil will obviously be attracting attention from clubs higher up the pyramid, both signed deals in the summer, both love the club as passionate fans and both are England prospects whose quality and potential for great things are there for all to see.
Once again, they need to be locked into the vision of Sunderland regaining our “natural” position in the upper tiers of the English game. They are the future of our club - we can build fantastic teams around their talents. Only truly irresistible offers for both the club and the players, with fees that secure massive resources to reinvest in the playing squads, should be allowed to prise them from our grasp.
The fixture list this month starts quiet and then ramps up, with the Lads back in action on 8th January with a huge fixture away against Wycombe Wanderers - the first of our big games ahead of them this month, - and the Lasses returning on the 9th when they face Crystal Palace at Eppleton CW.
The FA Cup game against WSL strugglers Birmingham at the end of the month, which is to be played at St Andrew's, will be a big occasion and an upset could mean a cup run that boosts the profile and interest in the Lasses ahead of the Euros in the summer. Putting in the groundwork now will pay off in the Autumn when Sunderland will surely be hoping to take the next step and challenge to regain their place in the top flight.
Sunderland Ladies, who are likely to be free from the risk of relegation following the demise of Coventry United just before Christmas but without much prospect of overcoming Liverpool and Durham to reach the WSL at the first time of asking, will be focused on continuing the development of the young players who’ve done so well this season.
The men’s team is fantastically well placed to finally stamp their authority on League 1, after four years in this unnatural position. What I find most encouraging is that there aren’t too many players in the squad that look like they’d struggle to step up to the Championship level, we have a manager who is committed to playing good football with young and exciting players, and when the 2022-23 fixture list is released in June we could well be looking out for some Wear-Tyne derby dates.
2022 should also be about building the audience - in person and online - and improving the matchday experience at both the Stadium of Light and Eppleton CW. Onfield is going well, but off field has to be a focus for the club too. Steve Davison has been clear with the fans at the Structured Dialogue meetings that things can and will improve - but we need to see and feel tangible steps forward being taken.
Better food, better beer, better ticketing, better transportation, and better promotion of both senior squads. We should also be looking at introducing safe-standing measures at the Stadium of Light - it’s what many fans crave for and could give us a huge boost going if we are in the Championship.
The resolution passed at the Red & White Army AGM to create an independent democratic fan group for supporters of Sunderland AFC Ladies will be a big step forward for both the fans and the club, The three-to-five year plan for women’s football at the club needs to have the same scrutiny as plans for the men’s team; we need to move beyond the Lasses being one point on the agenda at fan meetings to being a stand-alone engagement process that focuses on advancing all aspects of development across the club in line with the FA’s Strategic vision for the women’s game. This is part of making Sunderland a truly modern and attractive prospect for fans and sponsors alike.
At a strategic level, we will be watching closely whether the club adopts and acts upon the Premier League Equality, Diversity and Inclusion standards that were presented to them by the Red & White Army in November. The issues of racism, homophobia and sexism remain live and consequential, and the club’s approach to tackling these blights on our game must involve more than symbolic or rhetorical moves. Real action is required by all parties.
Also on the horizon is how the club, along with the EFL, chooses to respond to the prospect of proper regulation, and the reality of both the financial controls and fan engagement measures that the Independent Regulator for English Football (IREF) will institute. The transformational potential of these cannot be underestimated - allied to this is how the club engages in the forthcoming review of women’s football.
While it is clear and apparent who has executive control of the club, it would certainly help all round of questions regarding the precise distribution of shares within the ownership group of Sunderland AFC could be made transparent and outstanding loans to Madrox are repaid to our club in full. Perhaps if promotion is achieved there will be further changes to this mix as the value of the club will increase and those seeking to gain a profit see an opportunity to cash in.
An issue that may not provoke the same level as outrage as the location of particular shareholders on any given matchday, but that is massively consequential to the future direction of the club, is whether the owners move to create a “group” of clubs associated to Sunderland AFC, and what form this takes.
Buying clubs across different territories and continents outright, and having them feed players into our “parent” club, would be a huge step and one we as supporters should scrutinise with all the scepticism we can muster. It might make us feel big and important, but is it healthy not just for our club but for the long-term development of the global game?
So we go into this year with optimism and lots to think and talk about. Sunderland supporters have shown themselves to be an amazingly resilient, passionate and generous bunch since we were allowed back into ground - albeit with a propensity to meltdown at a disappointing run of form.
It’s not going to be plain sailing, but I am hopeful that 2022 will see the resurgence of SAFC as a real force to be reckoned with. Ha’way!