Recently, I’ve often found myself thinking about the much-vaunted Sunderland ‘model’, as have we all, I’m sure.
Our strategy, as explicitly set out by Kristjaan Speakman, is to invest in players who’ve been identified as having elite potential, rather than those with a proven track record at a level below.
I do like the model.
It’s certainly risky and in some cases, the potential may never be realised for all kinds of reasons, not least because it may have been misidentified. Some young players really look the part but for every Lionel Messi, there are probably a hundred Freddy Adus- players who seem to have the world at their feet but turn out to have feet of clay.
What this way of working means is that there should also be no ceiling to our ambition.
As much as I love our senior players, those bona fide Sunderland legends who helped to haul us out of League One and establish us in the Championship, the likes of Danny Batth, Lynden Gooch, Corry Evans, Alex Pritchard and Luke O’Nien have never really plied their trade at the elite level for a reason.
That reason, like it or not, is that the limits of their ability places them slightly below that level.
It’s also why – with the exception of O’Nien, who’s become to us what the ravens are to the Tower of London as well as a surprisingly adept footballer – they’re not being offered the kind of contract extensions that could make us a hostage to fortune further down the line.
Were we to make it to the Premier League with a team full of Championship stalwarts, it would be a car crash, the kind I’m expecting from Luton Town and Sheffield United this season.
It may even work out for those two clubs in the long term, as they inevitably free fall back to the Championship with those generous parachute payments burning holes in their back pockets, but I’m still glad that we’re being a little more adventurous and a little more far-sighted.
When I look at our young squad, I see some players in whose ability to succeed at the highest level I’m fairly confident.
Anthony Patterson, Dennis Cirkin, Trai Hume, Dan Ballard, Aji Alese, Dan Neil, Pierre Ekwah, Jobe Bellingham, Chris Rigg and Jack Clarke all look like they might ultimately have what it takes.
There are many others for whom the jury’s still out, either because they’ve not been at the club for long enough or because they haven’t yet quite shown enough to allow for a proper assessment. These would include Nathan Bishop, Nectar Triantis, Jenson Seelt, Niall Huggins, Jewison Bennette, Abdoullah Ba, Hemir, and Eliezer Mayenda.
Elsewhere, there are the youngsters who’ve come through the academy, the likes of Adam Richardson, Ben Crompton, Zak Johnson, Ellis Taylor, Max Thompson, and Michael Spellman, on whom it’s equally hard to pass any kind of judgment at this stage, although history suggests that only one or two will make it at the very highest level.
There are also a handful of imponderables.
Do we really believe that Patrick Roberts, for all his technical ability, can finally thrive in the Premier League? Is Elliot Embleton, now aged twenty four, ever going to achieve a sufficient level of consistency once he’s finally fit again?
Could Ross Stewart, if we ever get him to put pen to paper, make yet another step up, given that we’ve only seen a fleeting, if highly promising, glimpse of him at Championship level thus far? Plenty of flat-track bullies like Teemu Pukki have tried and failed to make the leap, although Ivan Toney was looking like a good bet until he made too many bad bets.
We know the Championship is a tough league, but the challenge of the Premier League is another thing altogether.
For a start, and whether we like it or not, there’s now a ‘big seven’ there, because Newcastle’s sheer spending power means even a bottom half finish is realistically no longer possible.
Even allowing for the disappointing seasons that Spurs, Chelsea and Liverpool had last time around, these clubs, along with the two Manchester clubs and Arsenal, are firmly insulated against genuine failure via a combination of revenue, acumen, and prestige.
These are no longer football clubs; they’re huge multinational conglomerates and their failures will be relative. Finishing sixth or seventh will feel disastrous, but can ultimately be written off.
Fans in Malaysia, Japan and the US will continue to shell out for replica shirts and babygrows. That means that the other thirteen clubs are, for the most part, merely competing to squeeze into the top half of the table, and even the best run among them will only ever be a few bad results away from eventually ‘doing a Southampton.’
So what are we hoping to achieve over the next two or three seasons?
When we were in League One, I used to cast an envious eye in the direction of Leicester City (and not because of their title win, which was a freak, an unrepeatable phenomenon, and probably the most unlikely achievement of all time in any sporting context).
They seemed to have a perfect model which involved cashing in one or two key assets – a Kanté, a Mahrez, a Chilwell, a Drinkwater – every year, and using that money to rebuild, and still they remained a much smaller club than ours in terms of infrastructure, fanbase, and history.
But then look what happened.
The wheels fell off and downward momentum, once established, is hard to arrest, as Everton fans would confirm. Any club outside the ‘big seven’ can temporarily achieve upward momentum by making some good choices, but a handful of poor choices can equally result in a tailspin.
Another illustrative example might be Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United, who burned as brightly as a firefly for a time despite always giving the impression of a team straining every sinew just to remain airborne.
The sheer effort of grinding out single-goal victories against teams stacked with superior players will always tell in the end as injuries and burnout reveal the relative shallowness of the squad. I always look at goal difference here, because if a team’s positive goal difference is in single figures, they’re overachieving and it generally won’t last.
Then there’s the poisoned chalice of European qualification, and the subsequent challenge of stretching that thinning squad across two games per week for most of the season, which nearly cost West Ham last time around, although it worked out pretty well for them in the end.
So now our template should obviously mirror that of Brighton or a Brentford: well-managed clubs whose success seems to be built on the solid foundations of astute recruitment and visionary coaching (which raises another issue for the future, in that the redoubtable Mowbray is just as much of a competent second tier boss as Batth is a decent second tier defender).
It’s also based on the understanding that success will inevitably result in having assets stripped by the venture capitalists further up the ladder every summer, and this too must be factored into the model via intelligent scouting and player development.
Players, in this brave new world of ‘soccernomics’, are no longer just players.
They’re assets to be realised, whether via performance or profitable sales and re-investment. It’s a balancing act, and one that Brighton seem to be getting spectacularly right at present.
I think our current strategy gives us at least a fighting chance of building a genuinely sustainable business and joining these clubs in the top half of the Premier League.
What we need in order to gain promotion from the Championship are players and coaches who can adapt to a higher level, and that’s also what we need to succeed in the Premier League.
Working hard to identify players who can deliver that in the near future, rather than those who’ve merely acquitted themselves well below the elite level over a number of years has to be the way to go.
Recruitment with an eye on the future is everything, so patience and faith will be rewarded in the end. Well, we can only hope so…