One week ago, it felt as though a familiar cloud of uncertainty had enveloped Sunderland AFC. After many weeks of elation, the playoff afterglow had faded somewhat, its place taken by yet more rumours, whispers, and signs of anxiety.
After ten days’ worth of discussion and some stark warnings from industry experts about the perils of crypto-investment and fan tokens, the infernal TFT Group released a reheated statement, created with all the slickness of a first-time Microsoft Publisher user, in which they reaffirmed their interest in ‘purchasing’ a 39% stake in the club, whilst boasting about their supposed credentials and plans.
Suffice it to say, their apparent refusal to be deterred certainly brought ‘the fans together’ in an impressive, rapid, and very definite show of unity.
‘#NoTFTatSAFC’ began to circulate on social media; a petition demanding their immediate withdrawal appeared on the internet, and it was made abundantly clear that this shady group had absolutely no business in continuing to linger.
And here we are, one week later, with the picture altogether clearer, optimism replacing pessimism, and a growing feeling of excitement about what might lie ahead.
The positive developments began on Wednesday, with an announcement that was long overdue.
Charlie Methven, for so long the primary villain in the eyes of the vast majority of fans, finally departed, leaving Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Juan Sartori as the two powerbrokers at the club, with a combined stake of 81% between them- easily enough to take Sunderland AFC in the direction of their choosing.
Despite some of his more interesting ideas regarding fan engagement, Methven’s reputation had long diminished in the eyes of the fans, and his departure is one step closer to fully closing a chapter that began in 2018 and was all but ended with promotion. Yes, Stewart Donald retains a 19% stake, but it feels as though we are finally on a new path.
It is true that Sartori has seldom sought the spotlight since his arrival, and it is highly likely that we will soon discover exactly what his long-term plans are, and how he and Dreyfus can work together to provide Alex Neil with the resources he needs- not just to ensure the team is competitive next season, but also to lay a platform from which he can eventually mount a top-flight promotion challenge.
It is true that there is much work to be done before Coventry arrive at the Stadium of Light on July 31st.
Whilst other Championship teams are beginning to make their moves in the transfer market, Sunderland have yet to confirm any new signings, but this isn’t necessarily cause for alarm.
As someone recently highlighted on Twitter, the age of social media has amplified the focus on offseason activities, and fans can easily vent frustrations about new kits, potential signings, and the like. Had such platforms existed back in the late 1990s, God only knows how much scrutiny the likes of Bob Murray, John Fickling and Peter Reid would’ve been under as we went about our business with the minimum of fanfare.
The simple fact is that during an often turbulent eighteen months, the infrastructure of the club has been painstakingly overhauled and brought up to a much higher standard. Indeed, we are entering the Championship with many facets of the club in better health than they have been for quite some time, and certainly more so than during the ill-fated campaign of 2017/2018.
As we saw last summer, low-key business seems to be the order of the day for Kristjaan Speakman. The days of broadcasting our projected transfer budget to the world are gone, and there is an altogether quieter and more measured approach being taken.
In terms of the makeup of the squad, securing the services of Lynden Gooch, Anthony Patterson, and Patrick Roberts on extended contracts was another huge positive from the past week.
As our longest-serving player, Gooch would’ve felt the enormity of our Wembley triumph as much as anyone, and under Neil’s management, there is every chance he could become a solid and useful Championship player next season.
Patterson, meanwhile, has a very strong claim to be our first choice between the sticks for next season, such was his rate of improvement towards the end of 2021/2022, and being able to call on the incredible talent of Roberts could be a genuine ace card for us in the Championship.
If the lessons from last summer, where the balance of the squad was perhaps tilted slightly too far in favour of youth, have been learned, and the recruitment model has been honed and improved, there is absolutely no reason to believe that Neil will not be able to field a strong team come the first game of the season.
After years of scattergun recruitment, bizarre loan signings and squad-filling free agent deals, there is a genuine structure in place at the club now. There is some way to go, and Speakman will ultimately be judged by the shape the squad is in at the end of the window, but it feels like a safe bet that plenty of hard work is going on behind the scenes.
At this level, we ought to be an attractive prospect for potential signings, and it would be no surprise to see some breakthroughs soon. Patience will be key, but there should be lot of confidence that we will be ready when the time comes.