Now that the dust is starting to settle after our magnificent weekend in London thoughts turn to what might happen next as Sunderland AFC look forward to life back in the Championship.
It feels that at long last we can put the turmoil of the last six years behind us and finally look forward to the next, what promises to be an exciting chapter in our club’s recovery.
However, promotion brings a new level of competition which in turn leads to new financial and operational challenges, meeting these challenges will require significant investment on and off the pitch.
Without doubt, the biggest area to address is recruitment to the men’s first team squad. Recruitment in season 2021/22 saw a distinct change in direction from our previous costly and disastrous scattergun approach.
The messages emanating from Kristjan Speakman in his post-Wembley interview hinted that we should not expect finance for big transfer fees to be available. There also was a stated desire to retain most of what we already have. The latter being very sensible for consistency and continuity, the former coming as no surprise. A level of investment will, however, be required, and that investment will still need to be significant.
The club has suffered four years in the wasteland of League One, the impact of COVID and is still recovering from the club’s principal funder switching off the taps in 2017/18 and the ongoing liabilities which flowed from that. That takes some getting over with the club infrastructure cut to the bone and requiring a managed rebuild. It is therefore not surprising and it should also be safe to assume that the days of excess spending have gone and they have rightly gone for good.
Our annual wage bill in League One - in the last published accounts - was £13 million. This can be expected to increase by at least 50% to cover rises for existing players and to assemble a Championship level squad, as well as adding to much-needed academy and backroom staff. Matchday takings – even with likely increased attendances – will barely cover that, if they do at all.
Of course, there will be increased TV and Sponsorship money arising from our now more respectable status in the game, but if the club is to fund itself – which it must - then there will be precious little for transfer fees arising from operating income.
So, the recruitment team will need to be clever. The model as it has been presented includes the assumption that we will aim to profit from player trading. However, at this stage of our development then surely selling our players of value - Ross Stewart, Alex Pritchard, or Dan Neil - would send us backward.
The depth of talent within the existing squad is just not enough to allow any of our better players to leave this summer. Financing an improvement in the squad through player trading feels like a non-starter in this window.
Speakman also spoke of using the loan system, taking players from the Premier League to play in the Championship. If he is taken at his word and that work has started on this - then it should be possible to make good use of this pool of players. We have the stage, we have the facilities and we have an experienced and trusted manager – so despite us being one of the promoted clubs – I expect that we will be an attractive option to players in this category.
We should, however, be wary of overloading the squad with loan players as we have suffered from such short-termism in the past. Loan players bring costs but no long-term value – using the loan system is, therefore, counter to the player development and trading policy that we are going to be so reliant upon in the future.
Lee Johnson often spoke about turning around tainted talent – we had great success with this season – rejuvenating the careers of Alex Pritchard and Patrick Roberts, for example. Did we get lucky or did the recruitment team and the coaches play a blinder?
In such situations, it is always a bit of both. But whatever it was, it worked. The risk is that it won’t work every time – by its very nature, such a policy will be hit and miss. It may also be harder to achieve success with this policy at the higher level as the pool of such players will be smaller and the competition for their signature greater.
Buying young players from top clubs’ academies is also something that we have had some success with, Denis Cirkin has had a very decent first season – but can we find 19, 20, and 21-year old’s who have been released by the big six but who are also match-ready for the Championship?
They take time to settle and to develop, and the transition from Under 23’s to Championship level is tough. We have plenty of young talent to work with now, adding a few more will take up significant coaching and financial resources that we do not yet have, so this policy must continue, but in a manageable way.
For the club to thrive at a higher level the club will - this summer - need to invest in the team, in the back-room staff, and in the infrastructure of the club. Financial self-sustainability rightly remains the aim for Sunderland AFC. This is the best model for all clubs outside of those who are state-owned – and there was been a warning for even those who are after events at Stamford Bridge this year.
No one outside of the club has access to the current financial position or to budgets going forward. We have no idea of the plans for wage structures or transfer fees. However, it seems obvious that investment over and above what can possibly be generated from operations will be needed in the short and medium-term – until such time as we have a squad and infrastructure which looks after itself.
So, this all brings us to the question of who will finance this? The club gambled its future under Ellis Short with the SBC funding and under Madrox with MSD, we must not go down that route again.
As far as we know the current ownership will remain in place - so will KLD as the controlling party request further investment from each member of the ownership group? That then raises the question as to whether they are legally bound to provide it, whether they are willing to provide it and whether they are able to provide it.
From what we know, so far, they have met their obligations and helped us get to this point. But more is needed and pockets will need to be deep, so the answers to those questions will fundamentally impact upon what the short-term future of the club might look like and how far we can progress in the next league.
The work that the recruitment team and Head Coach have done in the last 12 months gives confidence that we will be fine, but how far we can go will be determined by much more than what they can achieve with limited resources.
If the existing group won’t or can’t provide their share of the funding then how will KLD react? He seems to be a patient man, content to build from the ground up, which is a good thing as foundations under past regimes have been found to be built on sand.
We will just have to wait and see if the well-laid plans are adhered to or whether impatience creeps in as the ultimate prize of top-level football gets closer. The all too familiar board room struggles which we have seen over the years must be avoided so it will be fascinating to see how this all unfolds in the coming 12 months.