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Fan Letters: Fear and mistrust remains amongst the Sunderland fanbase!

The mailbox today includes a long critique of Speakman, mistrust of KLD, and scepticism about our transfer policy. What do you think? Email us rokerreport@yahoo.co.uk

Photo by Isaac Parkin/PA Images via Getty Images

Dear Roker Report,

Since when has the ‘S’ in SAFC now stood for “Speakman’s” Association Football Club. As evidenced by the comments that are now coming out of Alex Neil, it is now crystal clear that the reason he jumped ship was Kristjaan Speakman. What more damming statements can a well-respected and experienced football manager like Alex Neil say about our club when he is quoted as saying “he believes he will work within a more beneficial structure at Stoke”, “they (Stoke City) would give him ‘everything he needs’ to succeed” both on and off the pitch. To me, his most damming statement was “I think every manager wants to be accountable for the decisions that you make and shape things going forward.”

Alex Neil made it clear both before and after the Coventry game that he needed four or five players, he wanted those players to immediately strengthen the first team squad not be ones for the future and he didn’t want to be scrambling around in the last week of the transfer window trying to sign them. On all three accounts Mr Speakman has failed miserably yet does not seem to be accountable to anybody. I am fed up with the same old garbage Mr Speakman repeats every time he is challenged about the club’s transfer policy or managerial succession. This bloke is playing us like a fiddle.

At the supporters meeting in February 2022 Mr Speakman was quoted as saying “The tracking of coaches is ongoing and important for succession planning. Once the decision to change was made a review of the available information and data was undertaken and Candidates filtered against 8-point criteria. The process was right, and the best person (Alex Neil) has been found”. Obviously, the process was wrong, and the right person wasn’t found as he jumped ship after 7 months. I suspect point 1 of their 8-point criteria is “let’s get someone in who won’t rock the boat and challenge my authority” and point 8 is “we need to win games”.

So far this statistically driven, state-of-the-art succession planning policy has come up with Lee Johnson, out of work, Alex Neil, out of work, and now Tony Mowbray, who yes you guessed it, was out of work; I’ll let everybody draw their own conclusions from that!

A bad manager will never succeed even if he has a squad of above average players. However, a good manager will always have a chance of success even if he has a squad of below average players. History, and Alex Neil, tells us that it’s all about the manager, how he wants to manage and how the club support him. This is the total antithesis to how Mr Speakman is running our club. We will never attract a top-quality manager when they are being told by Speakman who we are going to buy and how to play the game. Roy Keane would never have come to Sunderland as Mr Speakman’s ‘Yes’ man. Can you imagine Roy Keane, someone who has won every trophy there is to win in the domestic and European game, being told by an ex-academy manager who never played the game at any sort of level, who we are going to buy, and this is how we want you to play. Mr Speakman had no intention of appointing Roy Keane he was just playing lip service to the supporters. He knew every obstacle to put in Roy Keane’s way without making it look like it was his fault.

How come Mr Mowbray has a two-year fixed contract but Mr Speakman wasn’t prepared to offer Roy Keane one?

Since his appointment in 2020 Mr Speakman has overseen the establishment of a squad that is unbalanced and seriously lacking strength in depth. How many wingers can a first team squad have? We were comprehensively outplayed and knocked out of the Carabao cup by what was in effect a Sheffield Wednesday reserve team, yet over half our team were key members of the first team squad.

To date Mr Speakman’s transfer policy consists of taking chances with players who have been released by their previous clubs or are youngsters for the future. A model purely focussed on buying young, promising players, develop them, sell some of them and then progress as a football club both on the park and financially is unsustainable.

As an example, Ross Stewart, who is now 26, wants to play football at the highest level and win trophies. Is Ross Stewart going to hang around with Sunderland in the Championship or League One for the next 2 or 3 years waiting for the likes of Michut and Bennette to develop into good players, of course not he’ll be off, and you wouldn’t blame him! I do not have a problem with him buying youngsters for the future, but there must be a balance with players of proven ability.

In his post-match interview after the Rotherham game Tony Mowbray said he hoped the supporters would understand where the team is at the minute in terms of its growth and development and hopes their ambition is not unrealistic. This comment has Mr Speakman written all over it. Unrealistic ambition, our average gate in League One was around 30,000, there were over 40,000 supporters at Wembley, there were over 40,000 supporters for our first game back in the championship and yet the club couldn’t repay that loyalty by signing at least one player of proven championship ability.

I would ask Mr Speakman not to speak to us like we are stupid, because we are not. Just listen to this nonsense from Mr Speakman’s club statement on the appointment of Mr Mowbray.

Mr Speakman is quoted as saying: “We have absolute clarity in the principles by which we are working…” obviously a well-respected and experienced football manager like Alex Neil didn’t have the same clarity in the principles, that’s why he jumped ship after 7 months. Mr Speakman is quoted as saying: “We have great admiration for the work that he (Mr Mowbray) has undertaken in previous roles….” Surely, I’m not the only one that doesn’t think achieving one promotion with West Brom from the championship to the premiership over a 20-year managerial career is a track record to be admired.

Brian Clough won the old 2nd division with his Nottingham Forest Team and then went on to win the 1st division the following year; that’s a track record I admire. Bob Paisley won 3 European Cups in 9 years; that’s a track record I admire. Dave Basset took Wimbledon from the old 4th Division the 1st Division in 9 years; that’s a track record I admire. I’m sure Mr Mowbray, by his own admission, would not refer to his track record as one that would be viewed with great admiration.

Mr Speakman is quoted as saying: “he (Mr Mowbray) was able to clearly evidence his alignment to our ambitions…” you mean he told you want you wanted to hear as he was out of work and was planning to move back to the area.

On Mr Mowbray’s fact file on the SAFC website the club refer to his managerial record as having managed in the Champions League and the Premiership, implying that it was a regular occurrence throughout his managerial career.

When Mr Mowbray went to Celtic, they had already qualified for the Champions league qualifying rounds (not group stages) and they were knocked out having played two games and Mr Mowbray was sacked by Celtic after 9 months.

Mr Mowbray had one season in the premiership with West Brom, they were relegated, and he was sacked. Please Mr Speakman do not embellish or exaggerate the facts to try and justify your decision. The people of Sunderland would much prefer the club to be realistic and honest, even if it’s not what we want to hear.

Will someone from the local media please grow a pair of balls, represent the supporters and challenge Mr Speakman when he comes out with this sort of nonsense. I grew up in an era where local journalists like Doug Weatherall were banned from the ground for challenging the club in the interests of the supporters.

Back in February 2022 the Roker Report’s Martin Wanless asked “Is time running out for Kristjaan Speakman? Nothing has changed since then, if anything, things have got worse. 7 months ago, Mr Speakman told us that he had appointed the right man for the job. 7 months later a respected, experienced football manager is telling us that the set-up, structure, philosophy of the club is all wrong, surely Mr Speakman’s position is untenable.

Steve Williamson

Ed’s Note [Rich]: Thanks for your letter, Steve. Football is a game of opinions, but it’s also one where results don’t lie.

You’re right that seven months ago that Martin and many of us here at Roker Report were very frustrated with the way that the replacement of Lee Johnson was handled, particularly the palaver around the approach made to Roy Keane, the lack of defensive cover brought in during the transfer window, and the way that the delay in appointing Neil that almost cost us the season.

But Kristjaan Speakman did appoint Alex Neil. It worked. We got promoted. The club achieved its goal in the first full season with the Sporting Director at the helm. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was better than what happened before. Lessons, surely, have been learned.

This season’s goal is consolidation in tier two and the acquisition of the kind of footballers who will take us forward. The club has lost an employee who had recently signed the contract he’d asked for to a competitor closer to his family who is willing to double his wages. That’s football.

It is Speakman’s job to run the whole of the football operation at Sunderland AFC for the long term - to implement the model that the club’s owners and board have signed off.

That strategy includes not signing journeymen players on big wages, but looking to build the playing assets of the club, brining in players who are both full of potential and have resale value - players like Ross Stewart.

We have a decent amount of experience in the spine of the team - Evans, Batth, Pritchard and Wright have all played at this level in the past. Luke O’Nien in in his fifth season with the club.

We now have an experienced Championship manager who lives locally and knows the area as well as this division. He may not be here for the long term, but a two year contract seems the perfect length of time for a gaffer who has proven abilities to develop young footballers and consolidate teams at this level.

So far the Lads have 11 points from five games, the team looks fresh and dynamic. I’m no happy clapper when it comes to the way the club is being run overall. There are always improvements that can be made on and off the pitch, and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Juan Sartori do need to keep investing in order to make Sunderland AFC the club we all know it can be - the one those 40,000 at Wembley deserve.

Look, we’re all passionate about SAFC. We all have our own thoughts and ideas about what the best strategy for the future is. But I personally find the online vilification of Kristjaan Speakman pretty unsavoury. It has the slight whiff of anti-intellectualism - when he tries to explain the complex business of transforming an ailing football club he’s accused of talking down to people or being dishonest.

Yet in Tony Mowbray we now have a Head Coach working alongside him who couldn’t be more connected to the people of this region, more plain speaking, or more honest about what the plan is. And yes, he’s aligned with the plan set out by the owners and directors of the club. Surely that’s what we want?


Dear Roker Report,

Now that the transfer window has “slammed shut” and we pretty much know what the squad looks like until Christmas, I have been thinking about the shape we set up in. During pre-season, we set up in a 4-2-3-1 (or as AN referred to it a 4-3-3) and only went to the 3-5-2 when Simms came in and they wanted to get him into the side.

While that system has its merits and has obviously served us well, I think it has some flaws. Against Norwich, while overall we played very well, I always felt we looked vulnerable to their wide players getting in the gap behind the wing backs and alongside the CBs. And sure enough that is how their goal came.

While having 3 CBs suggests more solidity in the centre, to me it just means that the right and left CBs are often pulled out into the full back areas, and occasionally both are leaving just one man in the middle. This is obviously because our wing backs are actually wingers and play very high up.

The other thing is of course the make up of the squad. Most chat I saw suggested we needed another CB and a back up striker. Playing with 2 CBs means you have good depth there (Baath, Wright, Ballard, Alese) and gives the chance for the wingers to get the ball further up the pitch, as Clarke did to devastating effect against Rotherham because they were pretty poor and he could, and it gives us a chance to introduce attacking variety from the bench when we have Clarke, Prichard, Roberts, Dajaku, Diallo, Embleton, Gooch, Michut and Bennette who all would ideally play in that 3 behind the striker.

The other things this system does is solve the back up sticker issue. For me Simms hasn’t been the best in the last two games and I wonder if his first couple of games dazzled is a little into overrating him a bit. While his goals have been good and welcome, I think he has go a bit lucky with the keepers fluffing their lines. Having him as an option from the bench, or a replacement if Stewart is unavailable, is where I think he should be, as at the moment I would rather have one more of the attacking midfielders/wingers on the pitch.

Will be interesting to see whilst TM thinks after he has had a few weeks with the lads.

Paul from Chester le Street

Ed’s Note [Rich]: Cheers for your letter, Paul. It’s going to be really interesting to see how Mowbray evolves the formation based on the squad that’s now available to him. And I say evolves for a reason, because I wouldn’t expect too many changes too soon.

I too am a fan of the 4-2-3-1 formation, but the two up top with wingbacks the Lads playing in right now seems to be troubling Championship defences who are being pressured by the forwards.

All those options we have around the squad will probably be needed across a long season, and I guess the formation will flex in reaction to both injuries and opposition. I think we’re going to have a fun ride this year.

Sunderland v Rotherham United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Dear Roker Report,

Why hasn’t our new chairman put he’s hand in he’s pocket for players ? Like other club chairman also where’s all the money from the Wembley appearances? All the gate money record attendances every week where has it gone ? All the players at the club are loanees so ware is the money? Still lining there pockets as usual sad men they are !!!

Stevie Leneghan

Ed’s Note [Rich]: Cheers for writing in Steve. I’m not quite sure how the owners can be lining their own pockets in a league where no clubs ever make a profit. The gate revenue will only go so far, even if we filled the Stadium of Light every week from now until the end of the season, the player wage bill probably wouldn't be covered.

The call for millions to be spent on players with “proven track records” is one that is not going to be answered as the owner wants to create a model where young players are developed and then sold on, with the proceeds reinvested so that the whole club moves forward.

I think it’s natural there’s still a lot of bad blood and mistrust around the club, especially after the last few years. But I think outlandish baseless claims will do nothing to help bring us together and progress.

Sunderland v Coventry City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Dear Roker Report,

It seems our club are more interested in the young players that they are signing up to make a profit in the future. Where as Alex Neil needed players for this saturday not players next year. With that planing and the young players do not work we could be back in div 1. He wanted chapionship players who could step into the side now not a years time

Alan Williams

Ed’s Note [Rich]: Thanks for your letter, Alan. That seems to be the line that Alex Neil has put out there, that he wasn’t backed. Sometimes I think that the fact that this football club was days away from going bust because of spending millions on fees and wages for “experienced” players couldn’t be sustained gets forgotten.

After years of short term fixes to long term issues, we have an exciting squad, packed full of promise and are playing good football. Alex Neil was a good Head Coach, but Head Coaches are very rarely long term appointments.

We all want immediate success if it’s possible - and a bid for a place in the top six is not entirely out of the question even this season - but if not then long-term stability and growth is, for me, the way to go.

Sunderland v Rotherham United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Dear Roker Report,

Spot on regarding the Utopian dream (a recent Reader’s Corner submission). There is still a big question mark hanging over KLD’s suitability as an owner. The spending levels of the club seem concerning both on and off the pitch.

The youth focus is not a problem. But the stingy budgets are.

I don’t know why the fan base tolerates KLD and all the other foreign, uninvolved owners who have come and gone at least since Bob Murray.

It would be one thing if the club was fan owned or had an owner who at least cared about the club and the local community but who had financial limitations.

But why put up with someone like KLD? Or Stewart Donald, Ellis Short or Drumaville for that matter. It seems like such owners only buy the club to get publicity and/or in the hope of financially profiting from the club down the road.

I think the fans would be much better off uniting and demanding much more from owners, now and in the future. Demanding that either the club becomes fan owned or at least owned by people with obvious full commitment to the local community. Or that any potential foreign, uninvolved owner will only be tolerate as long as they splash the cash.

Dan Ejstrup

Ed’s Note [Rich]: Thanks for sending in your views, Dan. There are some massive issues that the owners of the club need to address - we’ve documented them here and elsewhere across Roker Report. Whether its marketing, ticketing, customer service, retail or the state of the catering and the beer on offer at the Stadium of Light or Eppleton, KLD and Sartori certainly need to pull their fingers out and put the investment in that’s required to ensure the Lads and Lasses thrive in the future.

I also agree that having remote owners who are not on the ground day to day is an issue, and it means that the Chief Operating Officer role is absolutely key. Again, this is something we here at Roker Report have pushed for, and we hope that th message has been heard loud and clear in the Sunderland boardroom.

However, after so many years of instability, of questions over the future of the ownership of Sunderland AFC, a period of stability and sustained investment in the future would be very welcome.

As big an advocate of fan ownership and community involvement as I am, I will return to something I’ve said far too many times on these pages over the last few years - fans have no power to make these decisions, we cannot force very rich people to buy and sell their shares in the company that runs our club.

We need our Supporters Trust to be strong and active, and to push for things like a shadow board and golden share model to be adopted at Sunderland - the Tory government seems very unlikely to implement these reforms from on high.

Sunderland v Swindon Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

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