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Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final

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The precarious role of the modern Sunderland gaffer

Alex Neil has made a fantastic start to his reign on Wearside, but what happens next?

Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Compared to the recent past, this has been a good time to support Sunderland. Fans are still basking in the glory of promotion, and now we are starting to see some fairly strong rumours of new investment – bringing with it hopefully some clarity over ownership of the club.

There are, however, some lingering doubts still, and having seen him do such a good job so far, one or two supporters are becoming a little twitchy over Alex Neil’s current situation. It appears as if both he and the club are comfortable with the 12-month rolling contract currently in place, but to some outsiders that seems a little precarious, with fears that it could impact the longer-term planning on Wearside.

Certainly, and regardless of how well results are going on the pitch, I hope plans are being put in place in the background so that if Neil does leave, we are able to appoint his replacement seamlessly and give them the best chance possible of hitting the ground running.

We saw with his predecessor Lee Johnson, who went from Manager of the Month to being shown the door in the space of a few weeks, just how quickly things can change, and Sunderland need to guard themselves against that as much as possible. The senior management at the club are keen to implement robust, well-mapped-out operations and to be able to do that, contingencies must be made.

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

We’ve already seen huge improvements with regards to recruitment, but the most sensible, best ran clubs don’t just monitor players. Now that we have a clear philosophy in terms of data led scouting it can be applied to staff as well, and hopefully, there is a clear breakdown somewhere in Kristjaan Speakman’s office of the criteria for potential future head coaches or managers alongside a list of possible faces that would fit that model.

Appointing a new figurehead isn’t as simple as clicking your fingers and some of the targets may be employed elsewhere, but if some ideas have already been drawn up for different circumstances, then it would be a massive start; not only could it save time should Neil leave during the season, but it would also reduce the chances of Sunderland making a risky snap judgment.

How that job description manifests itself is open for debate, as not everybody agrees on the right type of personality needed on Wearside. Some of the issues at the club are too historic, too deep-rooted for any one person to tackle alone, and so it is perhaps unfair to expect too much too soon.

Johnson set us on the way, but then it needed a different voice to continue turning a talented squad into a meaner machine. There can be a vicious cycle though, and as soon as things start to go wrong on Wearside they accelerate big time, leaving some quarters wanting to push the reset button as a result.

We as fans have been worn down by years of struggle, punch drunk from suffering blow after blow. It means patience is in short supply in some areas, and that panic can quickly set in, but whilst the fear of being stuck in the third tier is now gone those in leadership roles still have to be thick-skinned and single-minded until we get to a point where Sunderland are on an even keel and not every defeat is going to cause a crisis of confidence.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

There is some level of agreement admittedly over what constitutes the perfect fit. Sunderland will always require an element of authority and somebody that can handle high levels of stress and expectation but is also at a stage where they are unjaded and up to date in terms of thinking.

Courage in your convictions is also going to come in handy, seeing as the world and his dog will have an opinion on every decision you make, and whilst arrogance isn’t a popular trait an element of bullishness is no bad thing.

We’ve seen several different types of manager come to the club, and the ones that did the best are usually the more established, straight-talking, and down-to-earth types. There is some flexibility in that though, and I don’t think people would be averse to a recently retired player taking over if their pedigree was right – particularly if they had turned out for the Lads at some point.

They would need the relevant coaching badges and to have been at a level where they’d worked under and seen how the top levels managers operate, but it could make sense. Such a character would bring some energy if nothing else, and would know how to deal with the attention.

None of this is to say that I want Neil peddling any time soon, in fact, I am beginning to think he is the best suited person we’ve had in years. The team has been organised and assured under his watch, but with an ability and willingness to switch things around if the game required it.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Decisions and tactics seem logical, and whilst a canny bit has been made of how brusque he is in interviews with the media, it suggests to me that we have a man able to cut out all the background noise and get on with the matter in hand. Sunderland have a habit of swallowing managers up after all, so putting that distance in place and not allowing some of the nonsense to take hold is a must.

The run-in under Neil was the best ‘business end’ run of form seen since Sam Allardyce was at the Stadium of Light. In the final weeks of the campaign, the Lads were turning out a consistency of performance not seen from us since coming into League One, and with a head coach able to take the pressure off his players and keep things low key it was obvious that the squad felt able to focus on their game.

We finished only a point above Wycombe Wanderers in the league table but, by the time of the Play-Off final, we were clearly a level above them, a sign then of just how much we progressed since the appointment and in no way a fluke. The Chairboys’ strengths were assessed, and a plan formulated to nullify them - the fact we gave away so few set pieces told us that.

The pessimist in me is starting to worry that this is all a little bit too good. Football is rarely straightforward and almost every boss will have some sort of shortcoming, so what are we going to have to contend with under Neil?

Things look rosy right now, and one of the few major aspects of the job we are yet to see is whether he can cut it at a higher level and maintain things should we suffer a few defeats. If he gets that right, a manager with three promotions on his CV now could be destined for the top.

Whether that is with Sunderland or another club is the big question, and that is partly why I made the original point about the club having a backup. It was easy for some voices to sell the period between Johnson going and Neil arriving as some sort of disorganised mess in which the management scrabbled around for a solution, and whilst we will never really know how true that was the confusion outside the club was something they could have done without.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Eddie Keogh/Getty Images

Claims that Roy Keane knocked us back were later debunked, as were a lot of the other things suggested around the search, but it would be preferable if any future appointments didn’t have to contend with the intimation that they were in some way a second or third choice.

It is careless journalism at best, and at worst a conscious attempt to cause division and derail the club – such issues can, if allowed to go unchecked, undermine what the new person is trying to do and become a stick to beat them with should things not go as hoped.

Minutes released from the Supporter Collective meeting in February indicated that there was in fact a structured process undertaken in which several contenders were spoken to and number of those given further interviews.

It is encouraging to think the club did their due diligence, even if during that time we lost what could have been vital points, as whilst identifying possible candidates is one thing you are never going to get a proper idea of their credentials until you meet.

It is no surprise that people want to throw their hat into the ring when the Sunderland position becomes available. They know that if they get it right they will earn hero status, whilst failure on Wearside doesn’t have to be the end of their career; as the likes of Steve Bruce and David Moyes found out, it is easy enough to overlook your own shortcomings and simply blame the wider issues at the club. Where it gets difficult for Speakman and co. therefore is whittling those options down.

What on the face of it might seem like a natural relationship or provide a glamorous name could prove unsuitable once you scratch the surface, and it is telling that a lot of the support roles created and filled in the last year have been individuals Speakman has known before and presumably formed a good understanding with.

For now, though, I’d be amazed if there were more than a handful of fans that don’t fancy Neil at the moment; this is a man that has picked us up off the floor and delivered us Championship football within a couple of months, so he is bound to be well thought of.

Whether that gives him extra cache in terms of reshaping the squad I don’t know, but if his eye for players is as good as his reading of the game his input will be vital. There is a pre-established transfer in system in place at Sunderland that could be a sticking point for some more traditional gaffers, but as long as it is communicated properly there should be no issue.

Having a similar protocol for coaches and staff does need to be the aim. Everything we’ve seen so far suggests Sunderland have a good’un in Alex Neil, but the problem with being successful is that it makes you attractive to others. We’ve already seen Burnley linked with an interest and, whilst Sunderland would appear to be a more attractive proposition than the Clarets for the time being, but you don’t know what is around the corner.

Contract lengths are a tricky balance. They protect both parties and allow the club to move forward, but you have to be careful not to end up in a rut. A head coach needs to know there is confidence in him, and for his players to see that too, but bang them on a massive deal though and you could end up being lumbered with a financial burden. As long as things are in place behind the scenes then, that rolling deal might be just the job for now.


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