When it comes to the relationship between Sunderland AFC and the multi-faceted phrase ‘ambition’, it seems to me that there are currently two prevailing trains of thought:
“In terms of fanbase, history and infrastructure, we’re a top ten Premier League club, and it’s time we acted like it. The owner needs to show some ambition and take the chance while it’s there.”
“Even if we got promoted to the Premier League and were relegated straight away, think of the riches we could pocket and what that would allow us to do in the future!”
In many ways, it’s a carbon copy of what was repeated endlessly during the League One years, but those days are over and things are certainly looking brighter. So, has our return to the Championship brought about some calmness and an iron-clad belief in what might lie ahead?
Perhaps it’s driven by what’s been perceived as overachievement this season or the consensus that this league isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but envious eyes seem to be looking towards the summit of the table with thoughts of, “Damn, we could’ve been up there if only the owners had shown a little more nerve.”
Yes, the current squad is raw, still developing and arguably not yet ready for a top six tilt (Saturday’s collapse against Stoke exposed that in brutal fashion), but the core of a promotion-capable team is certainly in place.
Some of the football played this season has been sparkling and there’s no doubt that players like Jack Clarke, Dan Neil, Dan Ballard and Patrick Roberts could eventually lead Sunderland back to the top flight - and would add real value once we get there.
The current group simply needs to be augmented with further quality, and even if 2023/2024 is spent in the Championship there’s not a shred of evidence to suggest that we won’t be aiming for the playoffs or even higher, and the summer is sure to be an interesting one.
On the subject of transfers there’s no doubt that Kristjaan Speakman has overseen some genuine successes in the market since his arrival at the club, and that he’s also made some glaring errors as well.
The January window will likely be held against him for the rest of his time here, but the idea that there was some kind of act of self-sabotage going on feels slightly tenuous. The timing of Ross Stewart’s injury was unfortunate, but the lack of additions (Ellis Simms has been a huge loss) was undeniably frustrating.
Speakman isn’t universally liked by the fans but if we’re judging him on his remit - to improve the squad and to lay the foundations for future prosperity - it would be churlish to deny him some credit.
Almost a year since the playoff final victory those foundations are certainly in place, and yet there are still questions and scepticism about what the plan is. This is despite the likes of Speakman making it clear that promotion is the next step, albeit caveated by the acknowledgment that it won’t be easy.
Seasons like 1998/1999 - when Peter Reid and Bob Murray constructed the best Lads squad of my lifetime and we blitzed our way to promotion amid an avalanche of goals and plenty of memorable victories - are rare, and there’s no doubt that an eventual Premier League return will be hard-earned.
This season, Burnley, under the immensely impressive stewardship of Vincent Kompany, have set an eye-catching benchmark and it needs to form something of a blueprint for how we continue to challenge in the seasons ahead.
A deep squad, quality in all areas and a take-no-nonsense attitude are the key ingredients. Are we there yet? Not quite. Can we get there? Absolutely.
Taking a broader perspective, there’s always been a debate about our ‘natural level’ and exactly where we fit into the English football pyramid.
Are we alone in being a ‘sleeping giant’ with dreams of mixing it with the finest teams in the country? No, we aren’t.
Nottingham Forest, double European cup winners under Brian Clough, spent twenty three years in top flight exile before finally earning promotion last year, and it’s taken a spending spree of ridiculous proportions to merely give them a chance of avoiding the drop.
Every football fan is fond of boasting about the ‘size’ of their club, but the reality is that in the modern game, history counts for little on the road to progress.
Neither Speakman nor Kyril Louis-Dreyfus have made grandiose promises about where we’ll be in five years’ time, and that’s not a bad thing. Eye-catching talk about hundred point seasons and the like are a distant memory, and things are much calmer and more structured nowadays.
One person’s patience might well be another’s acceptance of mediocrity but personally, I’d rather we cut no corners as we try to regain our place among the elite.
After a period of turmoil since 2017, it’s nice to feel that we’re on an upward curve again, and for now, that’s fine with me.
When we do return to the top flight, I want us to be competitive, to add value to the league and to avoid getting sucked back into the pattern that defined much of the period between 2007-2017: a season of struggle, a lucky escape and temporary elation followed by more erratic spending and a repeat scenario during the following season.
Our relegation was the only logical outcome after so many years of mismanagement and poor decisions, and if Speakman and Dreyfus are to leave the club in a better place than they found it, they’ll be hellbent on ensuring that we never find ourselves in such a perilous position again.
The question I would ask is: what do we want our long-term targets to be?
Do we want to regain our place in the Premier League and look to progress season on season, or do we want to enter the kind of turbulent yo-yo cycle that’s defined our next opponents, Norwich City, for the best part of a decade?
The answer seems obvious to me, but I also have my doubts about how far the fans’ collective patience will stretch.
I can’t shake the feeling that if we aren’t on the verge of promotion by the end of next season, there’ll be a ‘KLD Out’ movement starting to simmer, as if Sunderland AFC was a cheap commodity to be hawked from owner to owner if certain aspirations aren’t met within a set timeframe.
It simply isn’t realistic to think that way.
Unless a wealthy American sports tycoon or an as-yet-unidentified blue chip billionaire suddenly registers an interest in the club, we simply have to put our trust in those making the decisions.
Yes, the scars of previous regimes may linger, but those running the club now have got more right than wrong, and surely that’s worth something in terms of faith.
What Sunderland are doing in terms of their business model (buying, developing, selling for a handsome profit and reinvesting with a view to strengthening) isn’t particularly radical in the wider scheme of things, but too many of our fans seem to equate ‘ambition’ with mere spending when the reality is far more complex.
Getting our scouting network, academy structure and off-field departments (customer service, ticketing, fan engagement) up to top-flight standard is essential. Also, ensuring that the stadium is a safe place to watch a game is vital and in many ways, we’re still lagging behind.
There’s nothing wrong with building slowly, progressing year on year, and eventually mounting a promotion challenge once we have everything in place.
The idea that we get promoted first and then worry about what comes next is misguided, and the likes of Brentford and Brighton are shining examples of what some forward-thinking and smart management can actually accomplish.
Recent years have seen the most radical shakeup at Sunderland that I can remember, and although there’s much work still to do I really do think that in the long term, we’ll be so much better for it.