What is the Sunderland model?
To be fair I could probably write and talk about this all day, but in short: the purpose of the Sunderland model is to ensure that we’re progressive, stable, moderately self-sustaining, modern, academy-centric, shrewd with recruitment, good to watch, and a place where players want to come and play football.
Right now, it’s still in its infancy - the hard work started just before Kyril Louis-Dreyfus took over the club, with the appointment of Kristjaan Speakman in particular, before things really kicked into gear once our twenty-something billionaire owner got his feet under the table and was able to start assembling his team off the field.
We’re still not done, in fact. There are still key roles to fill, we’re still making improvements at the Academy, and the backroom teams across the various age groups are slowly but surely filling up.
More immediately, though, we’ve had to prioritise what has happened and is happening on the pitch with our first team. Speakman has had four transfer windows to re-shape Sunderland’s side, and you’d have to say that he’s done alright. We’ve been promoted, the average age of the squad has decreased dramatically, and we play good football.
Most importantly, we’ve recruited well.
We’ve gone down a route that almost nobody else goes - we’ve used the size and profile of our club, combined with the elite facilities that the Academy of Light possesses, and we’ve sold ourselves properly to young players who are already with elite clubs and have shown them that in moving to Sunderland we can develop you into a top player.
Some of our business over the last four windows has been immense. Ross Stewart at around £300k was an unreal find; Patrick Roberts on a free looks a steal; Aji Alese for half a million seems pure lunacy on the part of his old club West Ham; and Dennis Cirkin - an England youth international who was heralded as the next big thing to come through the Tottenham Hotspur academy - cost just £1m, though the deal was weighted heavily in the favour of his former club, knowing that it was likely he’d develop quickly into a top player.
And look... that’s the game, isn’t it? Sunderland haven’t gone into that particular deal blindfolded - we knew that we were getting a bargain but on the proviso that Spurs were likely to do well out of it down the line. It’s the main reason they let him come here.
So really, it should come as no surprise to anyone that he’s now being linked in national newspapers with a January move to several Premier League clubs. The rumours - which could of course be unfounded - seem to suggest that Spurs may invoke a clause in their deal which allows them to buy Cirkin back for around six million pounds, with a host of other top flight clubs prepared to then buy him off them, netting them a decent profit.
It could all just be bollocks, but if that does happen then you just have to shrug your shoulders and get on with it.
At the end of the day, we signed him a year and a bit ago in League One - fast forward to now and we could make a tidy little profit on him. On a player who we only signed because the deal suited Spurs more than it did us.
We may not sell him in January, but I’m sure we will at some point if he keeps developing - and that was always the way it was supposed to go.
I’ve found reading the reaction to the Cirkin links - and Ross Stewart links in the last transfer window - really interesting. As I said before, this ‘model’ is just in its infancy.
We still haven’t sold a popular player yet - but it will happen, and the sooner we accept that this is just part of how we grow the club, the easier it’ll be to take when it inevitably occurs.
Now I’m not saying that we’ll sell every single one of our good players, but if this model actually works then we shouldn’t miss a beat when we do end up letting a player leave who we all love and have loved watching grow in a red and white shirt.
You could argue that the first test of our patience was the departure of Alex Neil to Stoke. Many fans thought it would plunge the club into despair, but you have to say that the way that we dealt with it and in hiring his replacement was exemplary. We just got on with it.
It feels clichéd to even say it these days, but look at Brentford and Brighton - two clubs who have done a brilliant job of constantly growing and improving whilst also losing some excellent players and excellent coaches.
When Brentford sold Neal Maupay, the next off the conveyor belt was Ollie Watkins. And then when he left for Villa, they brought in Ivan Toney - and what a player he is now.
As they kept selling players, they kept growing. They eventually got promoted and have done well in their brief time in the Premier League thus far.
Brighton’s recent record in the transfer market speaks for itself too.
Marc Cucerella and Ben White are the first two names that spring to mind - players they bought, developed, and sold.
They’ve not only shown the rest of the clubs in English football that there’s a way to be successful that doesn’t necessarily rely upon a club being owned by a very rich man that bankrolls every transaction, but they’ve shown that you can sell your best players and move on quickly if everyone is prepared to embrace the way you’re trying to work.
All of this gives me hope that regardless of whether Sunderland sell Ross Stewart, Dennis Cirkin or whoever else, we’ll be alright. Because we’ve shown we know how to operate in an insanely competitive transfer market, and we can do things our own way.
I know it’s hard to not get too attached to certain players, but I can’t help but feel that most fans would benefit if they accept that selling our top performers is just part and parcel of the journey we’re taking to get back to where we feel is our rightful place in the pyramid.
Unless you’re the elite clubs at the very top of the tree, we’re all a feeder club for someone else. We just have to learn to deal with it.
Mind, it’s understandable that most of our fans would struggle to come to terms with it, because for most of us we’ve only ever known Sunderland to sign players that never go on to bigger and better things. I bet I can count on two hands the amount that have in my thirty years as a supporter... and even then I’m probably pushing it.
I didn’t want this week’s Editorial column to come across as overly negative about things, particularly in the wake of such an epic win, but maybe the scary nature of the rumours linking Cirkin with a move away should act as a reminder to us all that at some point popular players will go - and it’s then and only then where we’ll see our patience for this ‘model’ truly tested.
Me? I’m content. I hope that you are too.