Whenever we find ourselves outside of England’s top flight, Sunderland AFC is often afforded ‘sleeping giant’ status by players, coaches, fans and pundits from across the land.
In the second installment of his autobiography, ‘The Second Half’, Roy Keane admitted that he didn’t like the analogy when he arrived in 2006. He wanted to forget the past and focus on the present. After all, the club’s long, dramatic and sometimes illustrious history means nothing when you’re sitting at the bottom of the Championship.
However, like many after him and many more before, including the late Brian Clough, the history of the club and its connection with the city’s people got under Keane’s skin, and the ‘size’ of the club, however you define it, became a driving factor in his affinity.
The ‘sleeping giant’ analogy is an interesting one.
In a footballing context, giants are the ‘biggest’ football clubs, but what defines a ‘big club’ in English football? Current or historical success? Number of fans? Stadium size? Wealth?
In theory, as a club achieves more success on the pitch, its fanbase and income increases as well as the quality and size of its infrastructure. It becomes bigger and better and its ability to organically generate income increases. A snowball effect then ensues, which can eventually lead to giant status.
In reality, almost non-existent rules on who can buy football clubs, combined with lax FFP rules, have created an environment where wealthy owners can take over an organisation and fast-track their journey toward giant status, with Manchester City and Newcastle United the most obvious examples.
With this in mind, a club can be a footballing powerhouse without a big stadium, a large fanbase or a significant level of organic income.
A giant is likely to develop all of those things with its inevitable success, but without wealthy ownership, it can no longer break into England’s ‘top seven’.
The last club to do so without a major takeover was Spurs, but since then, the ‘big six’ has become the ‘big seven’, and the cost to gain entry has become far higher while the number of Champions League places has remained the same.
Newcastle United are the latest entrants to the party, given that they’re now the richest club in world football. They’ve had one of the largest stadiums and fanbases in English football for some time, but they’ve only just returned to the elite due to their newfound wealth, which is a case in point.
So, where does this leave Sunderland?
At the time of writing, we’ve got an extensive fanbase and a large stadium, but in a footballing context, we don’t have wealthy owners and a significant level of organic income.
The model devised by Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and implemented by Kristjaan Speakman has been a breath of fresh air following the chaos under Ellis Short and the austerity of Madrox.
The model, which precludes paying a fee for players over a certain age and applies a strict wage structure, aims to attract players with high potential and resale value whilst running the club’s finances sustainably.
As the academies of England’s giants continue to swell, our new way of operating has allowed us to collect the leakage. Dennis Cirkin, Pierre Ekwah, Aji Alese and Dan Ballard all came from the academy systems of Premier League clubs for nominal fees and have excelled.
Meanwhile, players such as Alex Pritchard, Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke were forgotten talents who were offered the chance to redevelop on Wearside.
Roberts and Clarke are now among our best performers and highest valued players, with Clarke attracting bids in excess of £10 million this summer.
Our scouting network has expanded globally, with Jewison Bennette, Abdoullah Ba, Nectarios Triantis, Jenson Seelt and Luis Hemir among those arriving from overseas in recent years. These players have sometimes found it harder to settle, but their talent is undeniable.
Ours is a model that requires strong internal investment in youth development, recruitment and data analytics.
To Dreyfus and Speakman’s credit, this doesn’t appear to have been amiss, with the club’s own academy performing well at under-eighteen level and beginning to produce players such as Chris Rigg.
Achieving strength in depth has often been difficult under this recruitment policy, leaving the side short in key positions such as centre back and striker, but on the whole, the quality of the first team squad has increased since it was introduced.
The club is undoubtedly on the up, but can it become a giant?
In terms of similar models, four clubs in particular spring to mind: Brighton, Brentford, Leicester City and Southampton.
Each is slightly different, but they’ve all prioritised a long-term approach of unearthing and developing young talent over signing experienced players on expensive deals for short-term gain.
While the latest innovators in Brighton and Brentford are excelling in the Premier League, Southampton and Leicester were both relegated to Championship last season, despite the Foxes finishing eighth the season before.
The fierce competition among England’s giants often results in one or two temporarily dropping out of the top seven, to be replaced by an overachieving outsider. Brighton finished sixth last season while Chelsea finished twelfth, and in 2016, Leicester finished first while Chelsea finished tenth.
It’s therefore perfectly feasible that during upcoming seasons, we could get promoted, sustain ourselves in the Premier League and pierce the top seven for a season or two. The Stadium of Light could host European nights and replicate domestic cup runs of old, just like Leicester have done in recent years.
However, without the wealth of the current elite, we can never compete at that level on a consistent basis, and our ceiling in terms of average league position has to be eighth place.
For many fans. though, this would be enough.
Competing in the Premier League and taking the chance to break into the top seven when the opportunity arises is an admirable aim, but if every club relies on a major takeover to become a powerhouse, then no club can truly be a ‘sleeping giant’.
Of course, you could argue that our infrastructure and fanbase makes us a more attractive candidate for a major takeover, just like at Newcastle, but it doesn’t actually make much material difference once the takeover has happened. How much of the £300M+ spent by Newcastle since their takeover has been generated organically?
Sunderland isn’t a sleeping giant- it’s an oversized kid dreaming of eighth place.
A major takeover could change that, but should it mean selling our souls to the Saudis or someone similar as a result, I’ll stick with eighth place.