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Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 1st Leg

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Reader’s Corner: “Is it all just a Utopian dream?!”

“Of course, our owners’ mantra is ‘sustainable development.’ In the next two seasons we’ll discover whether it is that, or whether it’s a utopian dream,” writes RR reader Doug Purvis. Fancy writing? RokerReport@Yahoo.co.uk - send us an email!

Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

“The key factor was probably the ownership.

I think they are widely renowned in the game as being one of the best owners. I think they give you everything you require on and off the pitch as a manager to succeed. That really appeals to me because any good manager wants to be accountable for the decisions they make and how they shape things moving forward.”

That’s Alex Neil speaking to ‘stokecityfc.com’, today. I think we’re all more than capable of reading between those lines, aren’t we? That is, by implication, the Sunderland ownership weren’t giving him what he needed, and he didn’t want to be held accountable for failure on the pitch when he wasn’t being given the tools for success by those who make the decisions off the pitch. In other words, the failure he was anticipating wouldn’t have been his responsibility; but he would, nevertheless, have been held accountable for it.

Now, of course, one way of reading that is that this is a man seeking to justify a move that has seen him, according to some reports, treble his salary. That the move he’s made is an entirely selfish and immoral (amoral?) one based on personal and financial considerations. If so, we can take his veiled criticisms of the ownership and senior management at SAFC with a pinch of salt. He did it for the money.

Another way of reading it, however, might be to say that Graeme Souness is right (it has to happen occasionally, by the law of averages).

“They’ve signed 23 players, Sunderland, since the new people have taken over the football club. Four of the 23 were over 25 and they didn’t pay any money for them. The rest were all under 25. They’re looking for nirvana, I think. They’ve taken a football club and they’re saying we’re going to buy young, promising players, develop them, sell some of them and then progress as a football club both on the park and financially. That’s nirvana. That would be very, very hard to achieve.”

The implication is that this much vaunted ‘model’ – the one that involves buying players to whom we think we can ‘add value,’ and who will be saleable assets in the future – is fatally flawed.

It’s utopian thinking (which I think is what Graeme actually means when he says it’s “nirvana”). Our owners are living in cloud-cuckoo land. They’re trying to have their cake and eat it.

It’s Souness’s version of “you’ll never win anything with kids,” in fact.

Now, if this, rather than avarice, was the reason Neil jumped ship… well, I’d have thought he has far more experience than either Louis-Dreyfus or Speakman about what’s required to build a successful football squad.

Which leads us to ask the question: what was the biggest factor in our promotion? Was it the recruitment strategy or Neil’s coaching? I think we’d have agree that Neil’s coaching was single biggest factor that allowed us to gain promotion when we did. We certainly would not have been promoted in 2022 without him. Then again, the players who achieved promotion, the acquisitions Neil relied upon for that success – taking just Speakman signings: Cirkin, Batth, Evans, Clarke, Roberts, Pritchard, and Broadhead – were bought according to that model, and may have succeeded, eventually, under another manager.

We’ll never know, will we?

Sunderland v Rotherham - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

What does seem clear is that there is a feeling – Souness certainly claims Neil feels it, whether or not he actually does – shared by some of our fans that there has been an insufficient financial commitment from our owners. They’re trying to do it on the cheap, and this strategy is doomed to failure.

Well, I suppose we’re going to find out now, aren’t we?

My own feeling is that there is a certain amount of self-justification in what Neil has said. We don’t know whether this overwhelming sense of having been under-appreciated by the Sunderland regime, as not that as not having felt adequately “rewarded” (to use Speakman’s word) for the job he’d done, was actually present before Coates Snr. and Jnr. began waving blank cheques under his nose. But if SAFC were able to offer him better terms, it now seems rather short-sighted not to have done so when they had the chance, doesn’t it? On the other hand, if we weren’t in a position to offer him the kind of money Stoke are paying him, there wasn’t much we could have done. It’s just market forces. Neil was headhunted.

But as far as the ‘model’ goes, this is – as we’d expect from two people (Louis-Dreyfus and Speakman) with Management Science degrees – a business, rather than a footballing, strategy.

Maximum reward for minimum outlay; that’s the “nirvana” to which the Prince of Pundits alludes.

AFC Bournemouth v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

It’s certainly a risky strategy, and it depends upon really, really good recruitment. It depends upon the young talent we acquire having been accurately identified as being ready to perform now in order to also accrue value in the future. It’s quite a balancing act, for sure, a high-risk strategy, and we can see by his treatment of the promising but burnt-out teen prodigy Calum Doyle what Alex Neil thought of one aspect of it, and the balance of the squad her inherited as a whole!

Of course, our owners’ mantra is ‘sustainable development.’ In the next two seasons we’ll discover whether it is that, or whether it’s a utopian dream. If it comes off, Louis-Dreyfus and Speakman will justifiably be hailed as visionaries; if it fails, they’ll have to carry the can.

Who knows? Hansen was wrong – even though he clearly would have been right nine-and-a-half times out of ten – maybe Souness and Neil are too. Let’s hope so!

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