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What a fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into

After a promising start, bad mistakes when making key decisions have seen confidence in Sunderland’s Sporting Director rapidly erode away. Will Kristjaan Speakman ever recover?

When Sunderland lost 6-0 to Bolton last month and I walked away from the stadium and back to the car, I was totally shellshocked by what I’d just seen.

It was about as bad as it has ever been in the history of this football club - losing 6-0 in the third tier is simply unacceptable, and the result and performance were a large part of why Lee Johnson subsequently lost his job.

Whilst I was initially thrown off by the move to axe Johnson, and didn’t necessarily agree fully with the decision, I felt confident in the men who had made the decision to shift him along. I foolishly expected that it was done with a well-thought-out plan in mind.

Yet, the events that have unfolded since he left have cast doubts over the suitability of certain individuals involved in the day-to-day running of football club - in particular, the guy whose job it is to oversee the entire footballing side of the operation.

And yes, I’m talking about Kristjaan Speakman.

I feel appalled that I’m even writing this because I was so supportive of his appointment, and of the groundwork that he put in during that first year in charge to get this club into a better place when it came to structure, philosophy and recruitment. I backed his strategy, his ideals and his vision for how Sunderland could move forward. I listened intently and believed that Sunderland, this time, were headed for better things.

I feel a little bit cheated, to be honest.

Nothing I’ve seen from him and the club since the sacking of Johnson indicate that they’re following the long-term plan that they sold us on - and that’s disappointing.

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

Let’s take a step back a bit, though, and remember what it was like earlier in the season.

Whilst our summer window appeared to progress slowly, results on the pitch were good, and several young players were showing how talented they were by producing in senior games. Everyone seemed to know their jobs and for once, things clicked.

Not only that, but Lee Johnson had us playing some of the best football I’ve seen at this club in years - I think back to the three 5-0 home wins we had earlier in the season and how we picked teams apart like they were beneath us. I think back to standing in the away end at Doncaster just before Christmas and actually feeling sorry for the opposition players because they were being made to look pathetic and silly.

We can’t just gloss over the bad run of form we had at the back end of October and start of November, where heavy losses away at Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham brought us back down to earth with a bang, but Johnson recovered quickly and won League One Manager of the Month in December.

Since then we’ve been largely tragic - oh, how quickly it has all unravelled.

The bad runs we suffered this season were put down to just being one of those things that happen when Lee Johnson is your manager - and to a degree, I probably bought into that myself in the end, and started to believe it was indeed the case.

However, what has transpired since has made us all realise - once again - that there are deeper-rooted issues at this football club that simply cannot be fixed by swapping out your manager.

Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One - University of Bolton Stadium Photo by Isaac Parkin/PA Images via Getty Images

The primary role of the Sporting Director is to ensure that the footballing side of the operation is the best that it can be - and I know that’s stating the obvious, but given the amount of variables at play, several wrong moves can make someone who appears incredibly competent look anything but. Just think back to the appointments of Roberto De Fanti and Lee Congerton for example - it really wasn’t that long ago.

When establishing a new philosophy, you have to be very careful that you don’t veer too far in one direction - and releasing lots of experienced players and replacing them with lots of inexperienced players, like we did in the summer, was a big, bold call.

We recruited players from top academies across Europe, and gave better opportunities to players like Dan Neil and Elliot Embleton, who were developed right here on Wearside.

And I’ll be honest, I’m so glad the average age of the squad has come down, and that we’re finally promoting talented players from within. I’m overjoyed that we’ve chosen to use whatever money we do have to bring promising young players to Sunderland - it shows we’re progressive and modern in our approach.

But... that doesn’t mean you have to totally sidetrack experience. You need quality players who are also great leaders - lads who know how to keep the more inexperienced squad members level-headed and on track.

You have to be able to back up your philosophy on youth with a degree of resilience and fortitude, because when the bad times do roll you need players you can count on to get you out of a grind.

Sadly for Sunderland right now, there’s a total lack of meaningful leadership and experience in this squad, and we’re asking lots of young players who are in just their first full seasons as professionals to be able to deal with all that pressure and expectancy - and it’s not working.

That said, it’s also a very easy excuse to hide behind, and despite their youth we have to ask these Lads to grow up and own their situation. We need them to get over whatever this mental block is, and quickly, so that they can play their part in rescuing our season.

Regardless, it’s the job of the hierarchy to ensure we give those players adequate support. Speakman failed to do that in January - and his biggest own goal on the transfer front was perhaps the decision to let two defenders leave without replacing them.

Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

A relationship breakdown between Speakman and Johnson were apparently were a big factor in the decision to allow Johnson to leave, but has anyone considered for just a second that Johnson may not have been the biggest problem in that particular relationship?

We’ll never know for sure, but the one man whose neck is on the chopping block right now is Speakman, because recent decisions taken have had a severely adverse effect on our recent results and performances, and we’re now in a situation where we might not even make the play-offs this season, let alone get promoted.

I genuinely feel for Alex Neil because none of this is his fault - he’s walked into a thankless situation, whereby he’s expected to work with a group of players who look devoid of confidence and meaningful leadership. He’s been tasked with quickly developing positive relationships with players in a short space of time - players, or some of them at least, who had bought fully into what Lee Johnson was trying to do on the pitch, and since his sacking simply haven’t responded to whoever else has led them in any given game.

In his three games in charge so far, Neil hasn’t been able to satisfactorily rouse these players - there has been no new manager bounce, but that’s not necessarily on him.

I still hope that the new gaffer somehow manages to piece our season back together, rebuilding the collective confidence of the players and getting us into a good position ahead of the play-offs.

That’s as good as we can hope for at this stage, and we just have to grit our teeth and get on with it. If the play-offs are our destiny, then let’s own it and ensure we’re as prepared as we can be for such a vitally important series of games.

But, at the same time, I’ll not forget about Speakman’s handling of big decisions in the last few months easily.

What a fine mess he’s gotten us into.


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