Whilst Sunderland’s promotion - ahhhh man... it still gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside when I write that - was only confirmed a couple of weeks ago, Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman recently admitted in an appearance on BBC Newcastle’s Totalsport that plans were already being put in place in order to ensure our recruitment team were geared up to bring new players in, ahead of our return to the Championship.
With no actual football to distract Lads fans in the last few weeks, the conversation has quickly turned to a number of off-field issues - chiefly, the direction that the club should take in the upcoming transfer window, as well as the current ownership situation.
Everyone wants to know how much we’ll spend, and whether we’ll lay down a marker by putting our money where our mouths are and picking up some of the top talent available to sides preparing to launch an assault on the Championship.
As Fulham and Bournemouth showed last season - backed by insanely wealthy owners and parachute payments - having the biggest budget and wage bill in the division is particularly handy if your aim is to get straight back out of the league, but other ambitious sides in the division showed that you can achieve a good position in the table with a smaller budget.
Despite being the biggest club in the division, Sunderland don’t have Premier League parachute payment money behind us, and as such we have to be clever with the way we look to build Alex Neil’s squad if we want to ensure we have a comfortable, struggle-free first season back in the second tier.
Interesting that three of the lowest spenders last season in the Championship made the playoffs. It's always not about what you spend, it's how you spend it. pic.twitter.com/bm6c8jqBRY— Gav (@CackStottie) May 30, 2022
What does the past tell us?
During the early days of the Kristjaan Speakman and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus era, it was made very clear to supporters that they had a vision for the way in which they felt the club should operate, and it was unlikely that they’d deviate from that plan.
Whilst the Sunderland owner is worth an eye-watering sum of money, clearly mistakes from the past weigh heavily on the current custodian of the football club, who - with the advice of some of the top dogs in the Louis-Dreyfus group behind him - isn’t likely to repeat some of the bad decisions made by previous ownership groups, all of whom had their own take on how the club would rise back to its rightful place in the footballing pyramid.
You don’t even have to go back that far to find evidence of this.
There were the infamous scenes from Sunderland ‘Til I Die where Stewart Donald - against the best advice of those around him - took the plunge to sign Will Grigg right at the death on deadline day, a poor decision that cost the club dearly right up until the expiration of his contract this summer.
Go even further back, and you’ll remember where a decade of overspending - mostly presided over by Ellis Short - left us hanging on year after year in the top flight, before an inevitable relegation occurred and we dropped like a stone, hundreds of millions in the hole.
Last year, however, a Championship-standard off-field infrastructure - overseen by former Birmingham City academy manager Speakman - was put into place. It made the recruitment of young players and utilising the best talents from our category one academy a much greater priority than it ever has been before.
The average age of the squad has been brought right down, and any money we have invested has been spent on players aged 24 and under - a sign that when the club does choose to invest cash in a new signing, they’ll do it in the hope that we can develop, improve and increase the value of each and every young talent that comes through the door.
The ultimate goal of all clubs, surely, is to be successful AND self-sustaining, and the sad fact is that to implement that ethos properly, we’ll periodically see some of our best players leave to join higher-placed clubs. The key, of course, is to then shrewdly reinvest any monies accrued, bringing replacements on board for a fraction of the cost.
Last season, we signed just four players for actual cash - Dennis Cirkin and Niall Huggins in the summer, and then Jay Matete and Trai Hume in the winter.
Players not classed as ‘youngsters’ were instead brought to the club on free transfers - shrewd moves were made to convince Alex Pritchard, Corry Evans, Danny Batth and Patrick Roberts to drop down and play for Sunderland in the third tier, but these lads have been some of Sunderland’s best players during our promotion campaign.
Clearly, a gap in the market has been exploited whereby the recruitment team have convinced players who are perhaps better than the level we find ourselves at that they can be successful, playing for the biggest football club outside of the Premier League.
In addition, the club’s efforts in the loan market were impressive - convincing Manchester City to let Callum Doyle continue his development here, as well as bringing in one of the top untapped talents from the PL2 in Nathan Broadhead, was some of the best business we did.
Furthermore, Jack Clarke - a player who cost Spurs in excess of £10m and had previous loan moves in the Championship - also arrived, as did German pair Ron Thorben-Hoffmann and Leon Dajaku from the Bundesliga.
Considering the outlay in both wages and transfer fees, it has to be said that some seriously impressive business was done last season, particularly considering the club was facing its fourth season as a League One outfit.
How much should we actually change?
Seriously, though - if we’ve stumbled upon a method that works, as the evidence suggests it does, then why would we change our way of operating?
Obviously, there will be an expectation that the club will now be shopping for a higher calibre of player, but our change in status means that acquiring these top talents from players sat outside the first 16 of most Premier League squads should be much easier.
It really shouldn’t be a hard task to convince them that their future is best spent at the biggest club outside the Premier League, which boasts category 1 training facilities, a huge stadium packed with fans, and a manager who has proven his credentials once again as a man who can get teams promoted.
In the past we’ve balked at frees and loans, but the business done particularly by Stuart Harvey in the recruitment team last season should give us hope that we’ve got what it takes to find the best of the best in that particular market, and that we have the ability to cut deals with top clubs who are prepared to allow some of their fringe players to depart - but only if it is the right club, with the right setup, ethos and management.
The quote above, however, is spot on - we’re stepping up a level to play in a league where there are teams dropping down from the top flight with Premier League wage bills and transfer budgets, propped up by parachute monies that enable them to outspend practically every other side in the division should they choose to do so.
Giving him the tools to do the job doesn’t mean we have to spend insane sums of money on players, though - just that we spend what we do have wisely.
It’s also worth noting that, due to four years in the third tier, our wage bill is significantly lower than the majority of teams at this level - meaning we have much more room for manoeuvre when offering out contracts to players than a lot of other Championship sides.
I’m envious of Brentford, because they were smart with how they went about growing their club. They invested in good young players, developed them, sold them, and invested even further. They built a sustainable model and it eventually led them to the top flight of English football, and in their maiden campaign at that level they finished comfortably in mid-table.
I don’t want to see us copy the ‘Brentford model’ - more just carry on with the ‘Sunderland model’ that brought us success last season - but I do think that their example is one we can learn from, giving us hope that you can still improve and achieve success at this level if you’re smart.
I can only speak for myself of course, but I’d be more than happy to see the club approach things in much the same way as they have done in the previous two windows - being shrewd in the loan and free agent market, adding quality where it’s needed, but also spending any money that we do have available on talented young players (under the age of 24) that can not only make a difference this season, but in years to come also.
And deep down, that’s exactly how I’m expecting things to play out.
Anyone who believes there’s suddenly going to be a £30m war-chest made available to Alex Neil this summer could be left sorely disappointed. I just don’t think that is how these guys are going to operate, even in a higher division with a bigger transfer and wage budget.
I could, of course, be wrong!
Whether that’s the right or wrong approach I have no idea, but I’m honestly expecting more of the same - clever recruitment that takes advantage of the fact we’re a big club playing at a lower level, which gives us so many advantages over most of the clubs in the division.