Recruitment is a massive part of football and it is an area Sunderland have struggled in for too long. Our slide into League One was a result of a thousand cuts; constant examples of poor decision making across several levels culminating in bloated, lop-sided squads containing many players not fit for purpose or being paid wages they didn’t warrant.
There is clearly an acceptance within the club, however, that this must change and moves to encourage a smarter way of doing things reflect the fact that better buying, and better selling, will give us the foundations needed to move back up the divisions.
Since becoming Sporting Director, Kristjaan Speakman has made several appointments as the club looks to modernise its scouting operations and get it working towards clearly defined goals. Identifying players that fit the model is just one part of the jigsaw though and the mechanics behind how we do the deals to bring those targets in has also shifted over the course of the year.
We will all have our own opinions on the players bought so far, but the way in which they are brought in makes a difference going forward too.
Long-term contracts are being handed out where warranted, but rather than throwing money at players just so that they sign on the dotted line they are being structured so that new arrivals have a reason to improve.
Four or five year deals allow young players to develop, whilst also offering some protection to the club should sides higher up the food chain start sniffing around.
There has been talk too of some signings only being allowed to move here once sell on clauses have been inserted into agreements and if we start to get a reputation for developing unpolished diamonds we could end up first in the queue when other prospects become available, whether that be on loan or via a permanent deal with appropriate conditions attached should they later flourish.
These smarter, incentivised contracts, much like the ones given to existing talents like Dan Neil and Elliot Embleton earlier in the season, will help futureproof Sunderland and enable us to tie down a higher calibre of player.
Buying with one eye on the future enables better planning and will hopefully give the team some identity; a revolving door policy does not give you a settled side or lads that have an affinity to the badge after all.
We do, of course, need some balance though - and or one or two shorter term fixes to help the youngsters along. Profiling those names to ensure they have the hunger and legs is a must, and not all of these arrivals will set the pulses racing, but with the average age of the starting XI coming down rapidly this season it is good to see we have not put all of our eggs in one basket and have still brought in one or two older heads.
On the subject of such figures we come to Jermain Defoe. This is a somewhat unique situation in that we were able to bring one of the deadliest finishers in the Premier League era back to Wearside due to his previous connection with the club, but we still needed to put forward a credible plan and have space within the wage structure to accommodate him. Solid thinking has played as much of a part in the return as sentiment has, and I dare say the shirt sponsors and club partners are loving the outcome as much as the fans.
Transfer negotiations take time, as proven in the case of Defoe. There are some that assume that it only takes a couple of hours for other clubs to get things done, but that is perhaps because they only get wind of discussions when they are about to be concluded. If you follow Sunderland religiously though, constantly hitting refresh from the second a new face is spotted in the area, then things are bound to seem distorted.
There are also those that take the lack of any rumours as evidence that nothing is happening behind the scenes, but another pleasing aspect of the changes being brought in under Speakman is that we seem to be conducting ourselves professionally; there are few leaks unless it suits our purposes, and some of January’s arrivals have taken everybody by surprise.
Staying away from the madness of transfer speculation and making things low key keeps other suitors out of the picture and prices low. Sunderland have paid well over the odds in times gone by, but we have all seen that spending wisely trumps spending big in the long run.
There has been evidence this month of moves being all but finished well before they were announced to fans too, and hopefully, this is another sign of thought-out processes being implemented. Complex discussions involving several parties, all with their own loose ends to tie up and other factors to consider before giving the eventual thumbs up need to be effectively managed – there may also be something in the notion that ‘done deal’ releases are timed for maximum social media impact.
These updates do not indicate priority I don’t think either. The order those deals are done in is perhaps more of an indication of how straightforward they were to complete, not whether that particular player is expected to be coming straight into the side for the next match. Sunderland will have been spinning plates during this transfer window and I highly doubt they went from one bid to the next in a linear fashion, no matter how many times somebody replies to a new signing tweet with something like ‘why isn’t it a striker?’.
Just as important as all of this is how we deal with things when players are ready to leave the club. Several big money signings have ended up being released following the end of their contact, with Sunderland getting nothing but another headache over who they are going to replace them with and how they are going to fund it.
It was refreshing, therefore, to see Denver Hume go on what appears to be our terms; the protracted conversations over the summer meant we have ended up receiving a fee for somebody who was about to become a free agent, and if the Academy of Light is going to continue producing players for the first team whilst also turning a profit our policies need to enable it.
Hume was not the only fringe player to go in recent days. In allowing less experienced names like Josh Hawkes and Ollie Younger to leave now and with our blessing, rather than hanging on and having their careers fester in the background, we are treating these lads with respect but also showing future targets that coming to Sunderland gives you a pathway.
The chance of continuing your development amidst good facilities and with the possibility of either first-team football or the opportunity to move on again should you need could put us ahead of other suitors.
We have seen some senior players head off elsewhere too, and in that respect the last day of the transfer window did take me back somewhat. Having a load of players on our books ‘just in case’ can be a comfort, but that can lead to flab and we are instead moving to a leaner squad. Tom Flanagan has been a regular starter this season and both he and Aiden O’Brien were always triers, but obviously, a forward-thinking decision has been made already that they were not going to be offered anything from us in the summer so once the opportunity arose to move it made sense to save their wages now.
Both of them clearly wanted to play for us and it was obvious that defeats hurt them greatly – these are traits I wish everybody had, but their departures further allude to the feeling that we are developing a more hard-nosed and pragmatic approach to matters.
Another thing we can surmise from the final 24 hours in January is that we are implanting an ethos that is much wider than one individual. It seemed crazy to many that after 30 days of the window we dismissed Lee Johnson but the fact we still carried on making transfers after that and without a replacement in place surely underlines just how interchangeable some elements of the plan are. Players and coaches must fit a specific type now, rather than the other way round, and as long as they match the brief they can be dropped in or taken out with minimum fuss.
Sunderland are certainly moving towards a new way of operating and an overarching style of play. It cannot be too rigid however as on the pitch at least we do not have a fallback option when things go wrong, and that was never more obvious than during the defeat to Bolton Wanderers.
In the aftermath of such results it can be easy to consider ripping everything up and starting again, but suddenly flipping and going on a spending spree as we throw the baby out with the bathwater will not get us anywhere in the long run. Football being as it is there will always be further disappointments to come, but if those are to become fewer and farther between, I accept that more still needs to be done in terms of recruitment.
We are perhaps still short in some areas of the squad but if you want to put a positive spin on it, could this be further proof of a more sustainable ideology being implemented at Sunderland? Hopefully, we are showing patience in some areas; we live in a society used to instant gratification and it may therefore be difficult for some having to wait in the meantime, but it may be better to go six months without cover in some positions than jumping in now and being lumbered with the wrong man.
That philosophy brings risks, but changing the culture at Sunderland AFC requires bold leadership and is long overdue. Dropping to League One was supposed to be the opportunity to begin the rebrand and yet we are only really seeing the beginnings of a streamlined, logical strategy now.
It is vitally important that come the summer we are strengthening for a Championship campaign, bringing with it some new challenges, but no matter what, the old ways have to end. We can no longer be bringing in footballers that seem to think they are doing us a favour by simply turning up, or that they can treat us as an easy payday, but if we do get the staffing right, the rewards will be there for everybody.