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A statue of Bob Stoke outside the Stadium of Light, Sunderland

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Fan Letters: “Come on Sunderland... it’s all about winning!”

In today’s fan letters we have some thoughtful reflections from Lads fans looking at data, strategy and recruitment. What do you think?

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Dear Roker Report,

There are two points from the minutes from the supporters meeting that I would like to highlight, which in my opinion, raise serious concerns about the future of our football club.

According to the minutes Mr Speakman defined the 3 core elements that the head coach is judged against: (1) developing, improving, and managing players, (2) the game model, and (3) winning games, prioritised in that order as they were spoken. Forgive me, but these are the qualities that you would be looking for if you were looking to appoint a head coach of the club’s academy team. As young players come up through the various levels of the club the academy manager’s job is to develop these youngsters so hopefully, they will graduate to the first team squad, and if we win a few games along the way so be it.

These are not the qualities you would be looking for if you were appointing a head coach of the first team. The absolute, fundamental, non-negotiable, and number one quality we should be looking for in our first team coach is that they win games. If you are winning games, then elements (1) and (2) will automatically follow.

According to the minutes, Mr Speakman and Mr Davison are emphatic that a Head Coach must be appointed who wants to play the style that the players are suited to. Absolute nonsense, we need a style of play that wins games, not a style that suits the players. Every successful winning head coach will have a preferred style of play. If the players at the club cannot fit into that style, then they should be replaced by players who will.

We have touched on the role of a Director of Football in my previous email, but the most successful, and by successful, I mean winning, coaches have been supported by a Director of Football not dictated to by a Director of Football. If Mr Speakman and Mr Davison were to read the autobiography of the legendary A C Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi, he delivered success by getting the likes of Ruud Gullit to buy into his style of play.

There seems to be an overreliance on theory and statistics, Mr Speakman and Mr Davison need to fundamentally change their mentality or KLD has to do it for them.

Come on guys it’s all about winning.

Regards

Steve Williamson

Ed’s Note [Rich]: Cheers for your letter, Steve. It’s balanced and thoughtful - and your central point, that a Head Coach of the men’s first team should be judged on results alone - because that’s what drives the whole club forward on all levels - is a strong one.

Personally, I want to see good football played whenever possible throughout the club and I do buy into the idea that the kind of game you want to play helps to attract the right kind of players and develop our own in the right way.

Results for the Lads on the pitch under Johnson were up and down, but the overall improvement in our brand of football was absolutely clear to see. Now it seems Alex Neil has decided he has no option other than to adopt a “win at all costs” approach and throw any presences to play beautiful flowing football out of the window. I fear that a “get in into the mixer” approach will only serve to make is predictable and prosaic, but time will tell I guess.

Overall, so many decisions made by the upper echelons of Sunderland AFC recently seem to make so little sense; I’m also all for the smart use of data... but data is derived from what has happened in the past, it is not entirely predictive.

Whatever metrics were employed to judge that a head coach who had the men’s team challenging right at the top of the division deserved the sack while at the same time suggesting it was okay to sell two time-served League 1 defenders without replacements signed, sealed and delivered, I cannot even begin to imagine.

Hull City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One - KCOM Stadium
Time for the big boy pants at all levels of the club...
Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images

Dear Roker Report,

There is much talk of getting out this league. Currently it feels like the most realistic way to get out is by getting relegated to League Two next season. Dreadful times.

Michael Bowers on YouTube may have a point when he says that the players are the biggest problem at the moment. Look at Derby County. In spite of a horrendous off field situation, players can still show some confidence and determination.

For all I know, Alex Neil is an excellent manager. I don’t envy him having to work with think squad. I totally understand that he is surprised how unbalanced, mentally weak and fatigued this squad is.

In hindsight the current squad seems overrated. Not regarding their potential. But regarding their ability to play on a consistently high level throughout their first season.

I still applaud the new long term recruitment focus under KLD and Speakman. I appreciate that they buy and develop talents.

But in hindsight the club hierarchy and the fans alike have probably had overly high expectations for many years. We can’t have our cake and eat it. It was always going to be a tough ask to both bring in a lot of young players, work on a limited budget and at the same time expect instant promotion.

If we can keep our best players at the club over the summer I wouldn’t be surprised if we achieve automatic promotion next season. Or that the players at least perform much better than this season. There is every chance that our talented young players will come back stronger next season. They may have a tough time right now but there is every chance that they will grow a lot from this.

In any case I think the fans should lower their expectations and be more patient. Ahead of any given season there will not be more than a 30% chance of us getting promoted, just take a look at the bookies. Unless we have owners who splash the cash which we don’t. Personally I am not sure so would like that either. I agree with KLD that more moderate spending and a high degree of financial self-sustainability might be better for the club long term.

In hindsight I think the fans, myself included, have been disrespectful of the league and the opposition we face. We have a very good League One budget. But not an amazing one. We can’t just sign a bunch of higher level players. We are basically on the same level as other League One teams and we should be realistic about that. I think our own exaggerated expectations as fans is part of the problem. We think that we have a top end Championship budget and that we bring in, or should bring in, Championship level players. But that is not the reality. Not yet at least. Not until we eventually get promoted which may be several seasons from now.

We should lower our expectations and be more supportive towards KLD. In any case we are unlikely to find another owner who will splash the cash. KLD is probably a better alternative than most potential owners out there.

Yes of course Madrox should leave the club as soon as possible. And of course the hierarchy has made some dreadful mistakes, not least regarding January sales and sacking the manager without a replacement lined up.

But the hierarchy also handles many things well. Like Speakman said himself at the recent meeting with fans, Matete and Trai Hume look class signings given their age and potential.

When it happens it happens. Perhaps we get promoted this season or the next or 5 years from now. We shouldn’t be so obsessed about instant promotion. As long as the club hierarchy has a sensible long term view, which they seem to have in place, then we should be rather supportive. And we should be more forgiving when there are periods with disappointing on-field performances.

The board should also lower expectations. They shouldn’t expect more than playoffs at the most ahead of any given season. At least not as long as our spendings are relatively moderate which is unlikely to change.

It happens when it happens. Trust the process. Be patient. And the board should communicate this clearly to the fans. Communicate that they have low expectations and that promotion within a couple of seasons is uncertain to say the least.

Perhaps this obsession with instant promotion is a leftover from the bad culture when the chancers bought the club and made an all in bet on instant promotion and a quick profit for themselves.

In any case, to me the ambiguity at board level is the most concerning. They need to lower expectations ahead of any given season to playoffs at most since they are not willing to splash the cash to justify a short term goal of promotion. And they need to stop deviating from their long term planning. Trying to appoint Roy Keane might have been the worst mistake of them all. Like someone wrote here at Roker Report, I think we dodged a bullet there. Keane might have brought short term success at best.

Best regards from your Danish/Norwegian fan,

Dan Ejstrup-Andersen

Ed’s Note [Rich]: Thanks Dan, it’s good to hear from you. I have to disagree that our expectations are too high - although we have no god-given right to play at any level, the size and scale of our club, undoubtedly the biggest football institution currently in the EFL, necessarily brings demands for the men’s side to play at the top end of the Championship or in the Premier League. We are not and will never be your run-of-the-mill Football League outfit.

I am all for a patient long-term strategy, if it is coupled with sufficient investment to achieve short term goals and intelligent decision making. Some of our signings have been great, I’ll give you that, but other things have been a disaster. As with so many things in life, it’s always going to be a balance and a judgement - let’s hope brining in Alex Neil is a good one. And finally, you’re 100% correct that the men’s players need to step up and take responsibility too.

Sunderland Unveil New Signing Trai Hume
New Sunderland signing Trai Hume pictured at The Stadium of Light on January 4, 2022 in Sunderland, England.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Dear Roker Report,

I’ve been watching/supporting Sunderland for over 60 years, I’ve been living/working in mainly Asia since 1996 and always found someway of watching (The Lads) Sunderland. I’m now watching the games on Sunderland TV sometimes getting up at 4.00am to do so.

But alas I’m rapidly losing interest and find that, what was my highlight of the week, is now becoming a hard slog with disappointment after disappointment. This is lower than when Big Lawrie McMenemy took us down to the 3rd tier and the really hard pill to swallow is, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.

Dave Roberts

Ed’s Note [Rich]: Hi Dave, if you’ve been watching the Lads for 60 years, then you've seen us rise and fall, rise and fall, and rise and fall yet again... you’re right that it is unnatural for us to be in tier three forever, so whilst everyone is free to walk away and find other hobbies I’d say keep the faith because the whole club needs our supporters more now than ever.

Alan Kennedy Sunderland 1987
Sunderland defender Alan Kennedy pictured during a Division Two match against Shrewsbury at Gay Meadow on April 25, 1987 - the last time we were down here in Tier Three
Photo Dan Smith/ Allsport/Getty Images

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