Since a return to the Championship was secured at Wembley social media has been awash with photos of Sunderland’s players and staff rightfully enjoying the moment. One person that seemed to be conspicuous by his absence in all the celebrations however is Kristjaan Speakman, whose role as sporting director means he has had a prominent part to play this season.
Now, it is entirely possible that I have simply missed Speakman’s moment in the spotlight. There was too much happening after the game for me to be able to see everything, and the sheer volume of images shared since then means it is hard to keep track.
It would be fitting, however, should he have chosen to stay in the background, as his is a job - like that of a referee - where the less you are seen, the better you are doing.
Speakman does not have a public facing role. He does sometimes speak to supporters when the need arises, mainly via official club outlets, but overseeing football operations is a strategic role where you are best served letting your actions do the talking.
That said, the club has just enjoyed its first promotion in 15 years and so it is only right that he gets some level of recognition for his contribution toward the success as when you look at what has gone before, you’ve got to be reasonably happy with the job he is doing.
There is still more to be done of course, but the work seen since his appointment a little over a year ago has helped put the club in a position where it can now kick on. Compare that with people that have undertaken similar roles in the past but achieved far less despite having far more resources and could be found embarking on plans, when there was one, that were often muddled, and you start to appreciate the value Speakman brings.
Unpicking the mess that is left behind is still a major stumbling block towards a lot of the things that need doing, and whilst not everybody wants to hear it, building up from the bottom is going to take a while.
Promotion is a major platform for this, however, and we are at the stage of the year where supporters do focus on one of the more obvious areas of a sporting director’s remit. Tasks like strategy planning, budgeting, or ensuring the players have the right travel and welfare provisions do not create headlines, but recruitment does, and it is a key ingredient, possibly the most important in fact, if you want to continue competing and progressing.
Sunderland have to get it right, but things have come on leaps and bounds in that respect under Speakman and now the retained list for 2022-23 has been confirmed, the assumption is that work is already well underway again.
Alongside Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Alex Neil, Speakman has a hectic few weeks coming up. As a big fish in a small pond, it was perhaps easier to attract certain players to the club previously, so we’ll now have to market ourselves slightly differently to potential buys.
Players will have misgivings too if they sense any tension between different parties, and that is something that has to be managed delicately; as we know, tempers have flared in the past at Sunderland when the person picking the team didn’t feel they had enough of a say about who was being bought.
As a head coach as opposed to being a manager, Neil will hopefully have been given a clearly defined set of responsibilities and expectations. His judgement has been proven astute enough though that he should be given some level of input with regards transfers, and as long as communication is clear and open it can be successful.
Such arrangements do not always work in English football, but if done properly they make a lot of sense – in an ideal world, Speakman will concentrate on making the deals and free Neil for the training ground.
It will be interesting to see who will be linked with a move to Wearside. Instead of bargain-basement and ill-fitting signings, the club under Speakman’s watch seems in recent windows to be actively scouting players with the desire and capacity to improve, and when gambles are taken on those whose careers have stalled, they at least seem to be calculated ones.
It can be a fine line between being a has-been or cast off or just somebody that needs to find the right home. You sense, though, that people like Alex Pritchard and Patrick Roberts were properly sounded out before being brought in, and it means Sunderland ended up with a level of quality they’d otherwise struggle to afford. This in turn leaves funds available for other areas, and points towards a proper plan being in place instead of there just being a scattergun approach
The arrival of Danny Batth was an encouraging sign; a problem was identified and then tackled, not just by bringing in the first person that came to mind but by targeting somebody with quality who, crucially, had been playing up until recently and was, therefore, match fit. The deal was arranged with the minimum of fuss and was pretty much done before word got out - a far cry from some of the sagas seen before.
One of the other January arrivals didn’t go quite as to plan, however, and came at a period when Speakman was really coming under fire. Any recruitment model has to have some flexibility should an opportunity present itself, but the signing of Jermain Defoe does now seem to have been a million miles off the model Sunderland are trying to implement.
Admittedly the fans were whipped up into a frenzy and the media circus served to put the club into a difficult position, but you do wonder if they now look back on it with regret.
The other issue at this point was the departure of Lee Johnson. The timing seemed odd and from the outside, there was confusion about the process for replacing him. Again, that may have been due to the way it was spun in some circles, but perhaps lessons could be learned as the situation appeared to affect the players.
Nevertheless, the appointment of Neil proved to be extremely well-judged and without knowing the full ins and outs, you have to take it at face value and applaud the decision Speakman saw being reached.
It would appear from this that he is the type of character that is willing to play the long game and would rather take time than act hastily just to appease others, even if it means a rocky ride in the meantime.
That would go part of the way to explaining the time taken to appoint Neil, and may also show what to expect in terms of squad building; there were areas where we looked light all season, but if the options were assessed as being either too pricey or not of the standard needed I kind of respect the club for just going with what they already had.
It’s a risk for sure, particularly given how bad our luck with injuries has been, but maybe we as supporters have to get used to the idea that under Speakman’s watch, Sunderland won't often be found buying just for the sake of it.
All that does is lead to a jumbled squad and was one of the things that saw us fall into League One in the first place, yet reversing the trend takes vision and courage in your convictions. So far it is paying off, as all that footage from the weekend now reminds us.
Whilst some figures had a huge influence on it, no one person is solely responsible for the Lads finally getting out of League One. No area of the club is anything like the finished product yet either, but there are signs of improvement at least and Speakman’s efforts will be a crucial aspect of whether that continues.
This is still a relatively new level of responsibility for him and, without instruction and enablement from those above, he would be merely spitting in the wind, but he can look back on his efforts so far with a fair degree of satisfaction – whether he chooses to seek the limelight for it, however, remains to be seen.