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Editorial: Both Sunderland Head Coaches’ relationships with the Sporting Director are now vital

The “One Club” mentality is important for Sunderland’s future, and despite some huge differences, there are key challenges and big opportunities that Alex Neil and Mel Reay share.

Mel Reay and Steph Libbey signed new deals with the club this week

I’m one of those who is glad that the top brass at Sunderland AFC made the decision to adopt the Director of Football-Head Coach model of football management, rather than continuing with the manager-as-dictator approach that sees cultural revolutions occur every time the board decides to make a change in the dugout.

Having one Sporting Director working with the Head Coaches, supported by skilled professionals such as the recruitment, analytics, medical, and conditioning teams, provides more heads working on achieving common goals - a collaborative and consultative approach that focuses on results on the pitch while keeping a keen eye on longer-term developments and incremental improvements.

It provides continuity, and ultimately - I believe - will deliver the ultimate goal of reestablishing both our men’s and women’s teams as top-flight outfits in the next few years. Rolling contracts for Head Coaches now seem the order of the day, and this brings with it significant benefits when inter-personal relationships and productive collaboration are central to the way the football side of the club is run.

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

Having successfully navigated the paths to having two senior squads playing Championship football, Kristjaan Speakman’s position seems to be reasonably secure. Sure, there are points that could and should have been better in the season just finished.

The gap between dismissing Lee Johnson and appointing Alex Neil was too big, and Mel Reay was at one point left with such a threadbare squad that had only two 16-year-old girls and a goalkeeper on the bench. Neither situation should be allowed to occur again as both had the potential to undermine the good work of the football operation overall.

There are clear parallels between the immediate tasks at hand for Neil and Reay. Both gaffers now have the respect and admiration of their supporters and the trust and dedication of their squads, but both face a summer of significant change.

Both squads require reinforcement - particularly when it comes to options up front. Both have proven their ability to get the best out of both young and experienced players and that they are able to achieve the objectives they’ve been set by the Sporting Director.

Both will confront the second tier of the pyramid in 2022/23 with a goal of progression, where a midtable finish would be satisfactory but with “stretch targets” that will include the hope that, with a fair wind, the possibility of promotion is not out of the question. For both, survival in tier two is absolutely fundamental, non-negotiable, and - ultimately - will be the decisive factor in their continuation in their roles.

Sunderland Ladies v Durham Women - FA Women’s Championship
Melanie Reay, Sunderland Head Coach, and her assistant Steph Libbey
Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

So both Head Coaches have really tough jobs in different ways, yet the pressures facing the two are undoubtedly significantly different.

The financial resources it takes to compete at tier two in men’s football are obviously massive, and as a business, Sunderland AFC will rightly concentrate its the vast majority efforts where the revenue is currently generated.

Neil knows that if his side is near the foot of the table when we come to the hiatus for the men’s World Cup in November, then Speakman is likely to look to find an alternative man for the job. The existential threat of a return to tier three football for the Lads is the number one item on the club’s risk register.

The constraints and opportunities for recruitment are, therefore, significantly different. When it comes to both player purchases and loans, the Lads will be fishing for talent with one of the biggest nets available in the EFL Championship - we’re the best-supported club outside of the Premier League and are playing in the fifth-rated league in Europe.

Relocation from elsewhere in the UK isn’t generally an issue when it comes to offering contracts of £500,000 a year to individual male players, but when that figure is likely to be above the entire playing budget for the women’s squad, success takes a different skillset entirely.

In contrast to the Lads, while they remain a part-time squad, Sunderland Women will always struggle to recruit players from outside of the north east of England. Durham are close competitors in tier two and have shown themselves capable of providing an alternative home for players who might otherwise have played further down the River Wear.

And there’s new money to compete with up the road at Newcastle too, despite their lowly position playing in the regional divisions of the National League.

Sunderland Ladies v Durham Women - FA Women’s Championship
Neve Herron of Sunderland and ex-SAFC defender Sarah Robson, now of Durham, in action during the FA Women’s Championship match at Eppleton CW, Hetton on Sunday 10th October 2021.
Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As such, the strategy is and remains focused on picking off the best youngsters from across the region and offering them the best coaching, the best facilities, and the most ambitious programme at what is still the most successful women's football club north of Manchester.

Expectations are similar but the consequences of not achieving goals are different. Whilst relegation to the National League is unlikely, it is not impossible given the resources available to other teams in the Women’s Championship.

The promoted side, Southampton, will be a full-time professional outfit and the Lasses will be in a minority as a part-time operation this season. If we are in danger come December, then I doubt very much that it will be Reay who is going to be held directly accountable - the fans will not turn on her.

Sunderland v Sheffield United: FA Women’s Championship Photo by Nigel Roddis - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

A more likely scenario will be Reay turning to her “superiors” and demanding significant support in the transfer market, especially if the Lads are looking pretty safe in their campaign.

If relegation occurred, whilst it would be disastrous in the short term given the effort made to get back to at least where we were in 2010, it wouldn’t be the end of the story and wouldn’t have the overall financial impact on SAFC as a whole that a return to EFL League 1 would have. So the pressures are different, as are the challenges.

The whole Lasses squad is built-in Reay’s image, with her tutorage at Gatehead College being a thread that runs through a large proportion of the team. Even the older players like Megan Beer, for example, have been coached non-stop by her for the past 15 years.

Personal loyalty, and the insight she has into individual players’ abilities and psychology, therefore, make her relationship with Speakman significantly different from that which Neil will have. She’s now on a full-time rolling contract, ably assisted by Steph Libbey, who has also signed a new deal with the club.

Trust and respect are the therefore vitally important elements in the relationship that Reay and Neil both need to have with Speakman. Neil’s rolling 12-month deal is similar to Reay’s, and provides the Scotsman with significant leverage over his immediate boss, whilst he remains a popular figure with the fanbase his power in the negotiations that are inherent when the “first team manager” does not control the transfer budget.

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

As our editor Gav suggested on the Roker Rapport podcast recently, there will surely be an element of 360-degree management going on, with Neil holding Speakman to account for his decisions and performance in giving him the squad he requires as much as the other way around.

Neil will need to be able to spend when required in order to bring in the players he needs to make Sunderland competitive. But for the long-term health of the club, when the nature of men’s football is that people rarely stay in their jobs for long if the results on the pitch are not going well, this will have to be done within parameters that mean that the next gaffer doesn’t have to entirely reform the playing staff.

The model worked in February - Neil never doubted the quality of the squad he was given, what he did was make the necessary changes to get them playing to their potential and winning games. It wasn’t his squad, but that never really mattered - there was enough variety and quality to allow him to play “horses for courses” and implement multiple game plans.

In many respects, Reay already has more power, authority, and autonomy in her realm than Neil possibly ever will - I doubt Speakman would dare question her judgement about what her squad requires or bring players in above her head.

Reay has the advantage of having been with the club both as a player and a coach, on and off, for the last two decades. She has that unrivalled and vital network of contacts, and the kind of knowledge of the game in our region and across the country that means she rarely errs when making recruitment decisions.

Ironically, now that Reay has given up her job at Gateshead College and made the move into a full-time coaching role at the club, it opens up at least the possibility that - like Neil - she could move on to bigger and better things if the club doesn’t keep pace with her career ambitions.

She has been coaching the England U21 squad over the past year or so, and is part of the FA’s elite coach development programme. She has respect across the women’s game, and will surely be on the radar of WSL clubs and even ambitious National League sides backed by Premier League clubs in and around our region, as they look to catch up with where us as quickly as possible.

Strategic, intelligent investment in both squads in line with clear and consistent plans - one that is supported by both dressingroom leaders - will absolutely central to retaining the services of both Head Coaches in the long term.

Securing this investment - which will be different but not insignificant for both squads - is down to Speakman. He needs to make the case to the owners for spending on transfers and wages and the rest of the Sunderland AFC board.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

As an institution, the club will be aware that investing in women’s football will only increase in importance and that this summers Euros represent an important opportunity to grow the audience and attendance at Eppleton, as well as to bring in one or two of the kind of big names who will grab the media attention and spark the imagination of people in the region.

It will also be aware that investment in the wider infrastructure of the club, be that improvements in the matchday experience at both the Stadium of Light and Eppleton or in the social media and marketing operations, is also required.

The new “whole club” season card - a Sunderland fan’s passport to watch elite football every weekend during the season - is a big thing in this respect.

How this opportunity is presented to the match-going public of the city this summer will be important, selling more of them to more and different people, and re-engaging those who’ve walked away from club since we had Premier League and WSL football to enjoy on a week-to-week basis is a huge and vital task.

When we look at the biggest clubs in England and across our continent, we see that they market their men’s and women’s teams together. Their owners and directors show leadership and demonstrate the importance of both squads to the future of their “brands”.

They sell both men’s and women’s merchandise and they build up the profile of their players as the key assets of their organisations. They have expectations of excellent results and of high attendance for everyone. Two important parts, both different, both growing, both coming together to make one strong football club.

But knowing that we’ve got two well-liked, well-respected, and extraordinarily capable people leading our two exciting, youthful senior squads provides a fantastic platform for this effort. So let’s enjoy this summer and look forward to more exciting developments across our whole club.

Sunderland Women v Newcastle United Ladies: FA Women’s National League Cup Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

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