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Speakman & Neil: A winning summer partnership?

Sunderland are facing a crucial summer, regardless of whether we gain promotion at the end of the current season. Philip West looks at how Kristjaan Speakman and Alex Neil could work together to build a team for 2022/2023.

Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Since the arrival of Kristjaan Speakman as the club’s sporting director, two phrases have become an integral part of Sunderland parlance, as those in charge have attempted to modernise our way of operating and set the club on a path that ultimately leads us back to the upper reaches of English football.

One of them (‘the recruitment model’) is interesting, albeit slightly vague and often ripe for mockery, and the other (‘the project’) is profoundly irritating, because it is used far too often in football circles as a smokescreen for a lack of success, and the belief that the corner will eventually be turned, somewhere down the road.

On a side note, there is also a third phrase that was bandied around regularly last year (‘data-driven recruitment’), but that one seems to have fallen into obscurity in recent months, and after the shenanigans of January, perhaps that isn’t surprising.

Whichever computer was used to crunch the numbers for that particular window was clearly not a state-of-the-art model, hence Tom Flanagan’s shock departure without adequate defensive cover arriving, and the ill-fated return of Jermain Defoe, which left Speakman looking less than streetwise as much of the goodwill towards him evaporated.

The reason I refer to these funky phrases and buzzwords is simple: I am looking forward with great intrigue as to what the future might bring, and whether Alex Neil’s presence could signal yet another shift in the way we do business.

This summer is certain to be crucial for the club, regardless of whether we are celebrating promotion to the Championship, or preparing ourselves for another slog through League One.

Off the field, the scenario that would certainly be of most benefit to the club would be Kyril Louis-Dreyfus striking a deal with his fellow shareholders, assuming overall control, and ending any lingering Madrox involvement. If that happens, we could truly say that a new era has begun.

Sunderland v Charlton Athletic - Sky Bet League One - Stadium Of Light Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

Even if there is no immediate movement on the ownership front, what will happen to the much-vaunted structure that was put in place last summer, has yielded mixed results thus far, and has divided opinion on its merits and drawbacks?

In my opinion, the model itself can certainly work, but only if it is implemented properly and not clouded by factors such as nostalgia.

The mistakes that were made in January, regarding transfers and the search for Lee Johnson’s replacement, were largely attributable to Speakman, and I don’t believe he should remain in his post beyond the end of the season, but there seems to be little indication that his position is under threat.

Assuming Speakman does remain in his current role, the success of the club’s summer transfer business will hinge on whether a strong working relationship can be forged between himself and Alex Neil, and whether Neil is afforded the leeway to identify and recruit players that he sees as a good fit.

It goes without saying that the contrast between the two men could scarcely be starker. Neil is abrasive and straightforward, whereas Speakman is much more avuncular and very much attuned to the modern way of thinking, which was clearly a major factor in why he seemed to work so well alongside Lee Johnson during his spell in the dugout.

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

It makes for an interesting dynamic, because Neil does not come across as the kind of boss who would be willing to concede full control of transfers. He clearly has a very strong personality, and it seems certain that he would waste no time in making ruthless, efficient decisions as soon as the final whistle blows at the end of the season.

I am absolutely convinced that if Neil’s services are retained for next season, he would seek to build a team that is battle-hardened, well-balanced, and capable of gelling quickly ahead of the 2022/2023 season.

If Championship stability is the aim, experience & toughness will doubtless be uppermost in his thinking, and if a League One promotion challenge is to be mounted, the approach would probably be the same.

In either scenario, we can probably expect fewer Callum Doyle and Leon Dajaku-type signings, and more players in the mould of Danny Batth to arrive during the summer. In addition, the club may no longer be used as a proving ground for young, up and coming players.

Sunderland Unveil New Signing Danny Batth Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

In his short time at the helm so far, Neil has made it clear that he places a high premium on experience and guile, which can then be augmented with skill & creativity to create a team that can cover all bases. That has certainly been reflected in recent results, and Neil’s ethos seems to be based around taking the path of least resistance to success.

If he takes that approach into the summer, would it go against the grain? Would there be a willingness to compromise on both sides as we seek to strengthen the team?

How it all plays out is sure to be fascinating, and with over 20,000 season tickets already sold, they will certainly be aware that the fans will be eager to see some swift and decisive action.

There does seem to be a growing consensus that Neil deserves a chance to reshape the squad and lead us into next season, and the way he has gone about his business so far would certainly justify that. How his starting eleven might look by the time we kick off again in August will certainly be one of the most interesting talking points during the summer break.

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