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Reader’s Corner: “KLD needs to change his Sporting Director at Sunderland!”

“Kyril Louis Dreyfus is a young man, and one who clearly still has a lot to learn about life, as well as high-performance sport. Perhaps, he can take a step in that direction by making a hard decision himself,” writes RR reader Matt McILraith. Got something to say? Write to us:

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

No sports club or organisation shoots itself in the foot quite as well as Sunderland AFC, and another ‘glorious’ chapter was added to that legacy this week with the dismissal of Tony Mowbray.

Like League One-winning Alex Neil before him, Mowbray ultimately seems to have been shown the door for questioning the balance of the squad given to him, with the obsession with developing young talent coming at the expense of on-field results, after a large period of over-achievement during his time at the Stadium of Light.

I have spent a fortune following SAFC, flying halfway around the world from Australasia on numerous occasions, just to experience the cold wind off the North Sea and the Roker Roar at the Stadium of Light, or the amazing atmosphere of the League Cup final at Wembley.

There is nothing wrong with the desire and attitude of the young players in this group: having spent £300 to attend last weekend’s Millwall game, I couldn’t question the commitment or the courage shown.

Unfortunately, though, the club are sending boys to a gunfight armed with a water pistol.

But, having had their only senior striker sold earlier in the year, along with last year’s Player of the Season, replacing both with kids who (in a football sense) have barely started shaving, is it any wonder that the on-field consistency levels fluctuate?

Sunderland v Norwich City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I’ve been in high performance dressing rooms myself: both successful and unsuccessful - in truth, probably more of them, and at a greater level of pressure and international debate, than Sunderland’s current Sporting Director.

And from those experiences - just as both Mowbray and Neil before him have pointed out - I know the importance of a few older senior heads to lead the younger ones, especially in times of stress when things are going against you.

This can occur when games are being lost, and you are being dominated, or when you are all over your opponent but can’t deliver the knockout blow, as was the case at Millwall for much of last weekend.

It’s the older ones who take the lead: whether it’s encouraging their younger teammates to keep calm, stay focused on the strategy and continue to push hard, or to deliver the kick up the jacksy when attitudes are not always as they should be!

This is as important in training as it is in-game, as that is where the ‘habits’ (good, or bad) are developed.

You can have the best management in the world, but if you don’t have the senior on-field leadership to go with it, then the ups and downs Sunderland have shown this year are inevitable.

That was largely the difference between the All Black (New Zealand) and Wallaby (Australia) rugby teams that I was associated with and – with all due respect to the EFL – they operated at a higher level, with massive global pressure due to the Rugby World Cup.

Based on the majority of SAFC’s performances during his time, Mowbray was clearly great for the kids in what is the youngest team in the championship: a calm assured hand, putting in a measured structured best suited to the age and positional profile of the team he had available (not many teams win championships without proven strikers!).

Fulham v Sunderland: Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images

But I’m sure he would admit he was learning too, bridging the age gap to the millennials in his team, developing new techniques of player-management along the way, and I say player because many of them are so young, you couldn’t really call them ‘men’ yet.

If I know all this, how come SAFC’s Sporting Director doesn’t?

Quite possibly due to his lack of a track record in successful high-performance teams and environments.

He clearly has plenty to learn too, and has shot himself in the foot as much as he has the club, by discarding someone who could have been a great mentor for himself.

Sunderland has a very young owner, and the strategy of developing young talent who will attract juicy sell on fees, reinvigorating the on-field performance and effort after years of stodge and underachievement while re-engaging the fan base, is noble, a sound business model, and has huge potential.

But it also requires balance, and that means a few older heads who can provide leadership in the dressing room and help develop the talent.

Would David Beckham have become the player he was without Roy Keane being around to (largely) keep him in line within the dressing room, and on the field?

Likewise, Wayne Rooney, without the cadre of experienced pros who helped with the progression of his career during the sometimes-errant early days?

Youngsters must have someone to look up to, someone to learn from, who will tell them what they need to hear when required, which is not always what they want to hear.

It’s part of growing up, whether it's life in general, in business or on the sports field.

Repeatedly sacking managers, as SAFC does at least once a season, and expecting different results (what is it they say about insanity?) reflects a club, and club management, which itself needs to grow up.

Sunderland v Luton Town - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Sunderland owner Kyril Louis Dreyfus is a young man, and one who clearly still has a lot to learn about life, as well as high-performance sport.

Perhaps, he can take a step in that direction by making a hard decision himself - and removing a Sporting Director whose lack of real knowledge and understanding about successful high-performance environments has become increasingly obvious in his obsessive recruitment policy - while selecting personnel who are both experienced, but also aligned in their vision or thinking.

The fans deserve that.

So, does the club.

Perhaps when young Kyril looks in the mirror, he will realise that he deserves it too.

Matt McILraith is a former Media Manager for the New Zealand All Blacks, Australian Wallabies and Crusaders (Super Rugby) rugby teams. In that role, he travelled with the teams and was a close observer of the high performance and dressing room operations of each.


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