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Sunderland v Ipswich Town - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light

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Sticking to the structure

“Whether you agree or disagree with the approach that is being taken, for the first time in far too many years, there seems to be a long term vision for what is being put in place,” writes Mike Stubbs.

Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

With the apparently imminent appointment of Michael Beale, SAFC social media has been awash with angst over the choice of our next Head Coach.

I don’t know enough about Michael Beale to comment positively or negatively about his suitability for the role but his history as a Coach appears eminently more successful than his record as a Manager. Steven Gerrard spoke glowingly about his coaching abilities during their time together at Rangers, and I have seen similar comments from Liverpool fans, from his time with their youth setup.

Time will tell whether KLD and Speakman have made the right appointment if it is to be Beale, but there is one factor that may play a more significant part in the choice of the next Head Coach than any other.

The club’s commitment to the model of bringing through young players is no secret - it was undoubtedly one of the reasons behind Alex Neil’s decision to part ways with us at the start of last season, a decision which eventually came back to bite him.

It was clear that Tony Mowbray was also finding it increasingly difficult to work within the constraints imposed by the club - the signing of Bradley Dack seems, in retrospect, to have been the only concession to his desire for more experienced players.

But this may not have been the most important factor which may have limited the field of available candidates to take over from Mowbray.

Millwall v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - The Den Photo by Rhianna Chadwick/PA Images via Getty Images

The recruitment of the coaching staff at Sunderland has been as carefully considered as the acquisition of players. As data-driven as recruitment has been, it has also been about bringing in prospects who demonstrate the right character. The same applies to those who have joined, or progressed through the coaching staff - do they have the right approach to working with young developing talents?

Mike Dodds’ credentials, working with youthful players at Birmingham, were well established, and he was a big factor as to why Jobe Bellingham chose Sunderland as the club to further his development. Thank goodness he did! Alex Neil apparently saw enough in Dodds to want to take him to Stoke. The two performances against West Brom and Leeds have shown that he has the full confidence of the dressing room.

If you cut Michael Proctor in half, he would have Sunderland written through him like a stick of rock. But this hierarchy has no room for local sentiment - the decision to part company with Lynden Gooch proved that. Promoted to first team duties at the same time as Dodds, Proctor is far from some token local link - his work with young players in the academy has deservedly propelled him into an integral role with the first team. Again, his ability to develop young players has been recognised as being a key factor for the success of the club.

The turmoil at Leeds allowed us to hire a respected goalkeeping coach in Alessandro Barcherini. On Tuesday night, we were treated to impressive displays at both ends of the pitch from two of his protégés, Ilan Meslier and Anthony Patterson. Between them, they conceded just a single goal as they demonstrated the impact an outstanding goalkeeping coach can have - both were supremely talented but somewhat raw. Both play with a maturity that belies their age. Behind Patterson, other young goalkeeping talents are emerging at Sunderland, such as Matty Young. As with Dodds and Proctor, Barcherini has shown himself as a key figure in the development of young players.

Barrow v Leeds United: EFL Trophy Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Elsewhere, under the watchful eye of Head Coach, Stuart English, Graeme Murty has proved a shrewd appointment for an increasingly youthful and impressive Under 21s squad, which has also provided a useful stage for some of the players on the fringes of the first team to maintain their readiness to play if called upon.

The departure of the highly regarded Adam Asgah has been followed by the restructure of the Academy coaching staff, all designed to create individual pathways for emerging talents at the club to progress.

Within this carefully crafted coaching structure, there is little room for any incoming Manager/Head Coach to bring their own ‘people’ with them. Tony Mowbray brought his own established Assistant Manager, Mark Venus, but that was it.

That adherence to the coaching structure may well prove a disincentive for some potential Managers/Head Coaches - some like the comfort of established working relationships with previous players, and those who like to be surrounded by a trusted coaching team. None of them will find their preferences indulged by the current club hierarchy.

It has been clear for some time that anyone who wants the top job at Sunderland will have to work with the players that the club will provide for them, and that their control over who arrives or leaves will be severely limited.

What perhaps has gone under the radar a little, is that they will also have to work within the coaching structure that the club has gone to such lengths to build. For some, particularly for those from abroad, who may feel more comfortable in a new environment with established colleagues they trust around them, that may be a step too far.

However impressive or unimpressive the appointment of the next Head Coach, Beale or someone else, maybe, I am fully on board with the structures that are being put in place at Sunderland. Our coaches know that they will not be sacrificed to the whim of the next incoming Head Coach.

Norwich City v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

For players and young players in particular, that sense of continuity in the environment around them can make all the difference between being comfortable in their own development or feeling ill at ease when the inevitable changes come.

We have a large squad of highly talented but very young and inexperienced players, with some promising prospects, such as Matty Young, Tommy Watson and Harry Gardiner, waiting in the wings. Creating an environment where those potentially prodigious talents can flourish is where our club can emulate the success of clubs such as Brighton and Brentford.

If Michael Beale is regarded by KLD and Speakman as the best fit for the structure we have, I will be as underwhelmed as I was when Mowbray was appointed. Looking back at where we were when everyone’s favourite Grandad arrived to where we are now, I’m happy to admit that I got that one wrong.

What I am grateful to see is that the club I have supported all my life has a plan, a purpose, a strategy and a structure. Whether you agree or disagree with the approach that is being taken, for the first time in far too many years, there seems to be a long term vision for what is being put in place.


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