Over the last week or so I’ve been fortunate enough to speak in great detail with fans of a number of other Championship clubs for the site (all of which can be found if you scroll back a bit on the homepage), and I did this because I wanted to try and broaden my perspective on what is and isn’t achievable over the coming season for Sunderland.
What was most interesting for me was that, despite all of these fans supporting clubs that have different philosophies, ambitions, fortunes, and budgets, they all pretty much agreed on what a club should and shouldn’t do if they want to be successful in the second tier.
As other clubs have shown in recent years, you don’t need to be the biggest club in the division or have the biggest budget to be competitive at the top end of the table - though it does help. What you do need is the right blend of a top manager, an off-field infrastructure that allows the football club to flourish in terms of recruitment, medical care and coaching, a squad all pulling in the same direction, and a fanbase who can see what the team on the pitch are trying to achieve.
That’s why - apart from the clubs who have been recently relegated from the top flight and have the luxury of parachute payments topping up their transfer budget and wage bill - the Championship is actually a bit of a free-for-all.
Not that people like to talk about it, but it is. You can fit a fag paper between most of the clubs duking it out for a finish anywhere between 6th and 24th - and unlike in the top flight where the clubs are so wealthy that they can throw money at staying up, the Championship is littered with clubs who can’t really maintain a fine balance when it comes to the direction of their football club.
And that’s where Sunderland have to take advantage.
It may not be this year, and it certainly wouldn’t be realistic or even fair to expect it to be, but Sunderland AFC has so many competitive advantages in our arsenal that we absolutely have to use them over the coming years if we’re to eventually climb back out and into the Premier League once more.
People say that being a big club doesn’t count for much at this level, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. Having a huge fanbase doesn’t necessarily equate to points on the board, but having an elite training facility and a category one academy means a great deal.
Theoretically, it should give us the leg up when it comes to competing for the best players. It allows us to explore markets that others simply cannot compete with us in - particularly, in signing some of the best young talents from other clubs who also have category one training facilities and academies.
Players looking to transition away from top clubs - like Dan Ballard or Dennis Cirkin, for example - know they’ll have a much smoother ride than if they took a gamble at a smaller club with poorer facilities. And on top of that, the selling clubs are likely to be less reluctant to let a player leave if they know they’re going to be looked after properly - though that arguably factors in more when loaning youngsters, like we did with Callum Doyle, Nathan Broadhead, Thorben Hoffmann and Jack Clarke last season.
That doesn’t just count for players, but also when you’re recruiting coaching staff, recruitment staff, analysists, physios, fitness coaches and so on.
Why wouldn’t you want to work at a club that has some of the best facilities in the country? The structure put in place last year when Kristjaan Speakman took over as Sporting Director should set us up and give us the platform to succeed. We’re already seeing the benefits of having Stuart Harvey in charge of recruitment, for example.
After all, we know better than most that it doesn’t matter how good your facilities are if the people running them aren’t good enough to take full advantage of them, or if you have an ownership that doesn’t care about making the most of it.
Now that the structure is in place, Sunderland can find success and competitive advantages where other Championship clubs simply cannot, and that will be key.
This summer is a big one for us, but like in any other year, we have to get it right. We can’t rush, we can’t make many poor decisions. We don’t want to struggle, and therefore have to do absolutely everything we can to avoid it.
Thankfully, it appears that we’ve got everything geared towards another decent summer. There may not have been a raft of new signings but that shouldn’t worry people - you only have to think back to a year or so, where the approach was similar, yet come the end of the window we ended up doing some very good business.
The club’s motto, ‘Consectatio Excellentiae’, roughly translates from Latin as ‘in pursuit of excellence’ - something that, over the years, seems to have got lost in translation.
But not now. For once, and with good reason, Sunderland fans feel confident and hopeful that we’re headed in the right direction, with people who have the club’s best interests at heart making all of the key decisions.
There’s no reason why this season can’t be a success - we just have to embrace it.