Aah, September. The air is cooling, the leaves are falling, and we don’t have to sit through endless clickbait articles telling us South Shields are going to sign Jack Clarke for 50p and a Twix. Bliss.
However, with the calm of the post-window period comes opportunity. Opportunity to strengthen the foundations of a team, to plan ahead for those seasons that must inevitably follow the current, and - crucially for Sunderland - to focus with greater clarity on solving a few retention puzzles.
For as welcome as the news has been on this front of late, with Anthony Patterson joining Trai Hume, Dennis Cirkin, Dan Ballard, and Luke O’Nien in committing long-term to the club, there is still work to be done.
Can we trust the club to carry out this work? Have Kyril and Kristjaan proven that they know what we need, and when we need it? Will they show the requisite ambition in tying down our brightest starlets before the Premier League comes calling with the promise of untold riches?
Well, if you look at the third paragraph, you’ll notice the names of five players, four of whom are 23 or under and two of whom signed from Premier League sides, all signing new deals since last season ended. Ballard, Hume, and Patterson also had years left on their existing deals, showing a level of forward planning that’s been unheard of at Sunderland - particularly among those of us who remember Josh Maja.
So to avoid doubt, I firmly believe the powers that be are fully aware of, and capable of dealing with, the issues at hand and have the ambition and desire to do what’s right by our club.
They’ve proven it with signings, they’ve proven it with shrewd sales, and they’re going a long way to proving it with contract negotiations, too.
So what’s left for them to do to nail it beyond all doubt?
Signing the lad pictured above to a new deal would help! Jack Clarke has started the season like a house on fire, and you’d struggle to find a single Sunderland fan who doesn’t want to see him tearing teams apart (again) for the foreseeable future. The club did well to rebuff Burnley’s interest this summer, with paltry figures of £9m bandied around, but you can bet that’s not the last we’ve heard of it.
Clarke has three seasons left on his existing deal, til the summer of 2026, so he isn’t quite the flight risk Ross Stewart posed before his move to Southampton. However, he’s 22, English, performing at a high level, and has dazzling feet and pace - those qualities not only tend to add zeroes onto transfer fees, but onto contracts, as well.
So the biggest challenge Speakman et al. face is to attempt to convince Clarke that we’re not just the best place for him on the pitch, but that our wage structure will manage to accommodate him, and do this without breaking the bank and reneging on The Model which saw us refuse to match Stewart’s reported £25k-per-week demands.
How can he manage it? The obvious answer is to pay Clarke what he wants - but they’ve demonstrated they aren’t willing to bend the limits of the wage structure, so that’s likely a non-starter. Which, following Ellis Short and Stewart Donald’s decade or so of financially liquifying the club, should be obviously a positive.
If not that, then what? Perhaps the trick lies in performance bonuses - a guaranteed pay bump on promotion, cash in return for goals and assists, the sort of thing Football Manager players could reel off in their sleep.
It could work, of course, particularly if the player really backs himself and us to do the business on the pitch - an area Tony Mowbray seems to have a handle on.
Clarke isn’t the only concern, though. Having had concrete interest from moneybags Southampton in August, Patrick Roberts will know the sort of wages on offer elsewhere, with the added allure of banking even more should he wait to transfer on a Bosman at the end of the season.
While we’d all play for Sunderland for free, this is a job, and often cash is king.
In my opinion, what happens with Roberts will tell us a lot about what will happen with Clarke. Manage to tie Roberts down, demonstrate the scope for quality and experience to be rewarded within The Model, and the signs are positive that Clarke could well follow suit.
Fail to satisfy Roberts?
Well, Jack the lad won’t be looking for much less.
Good luck, Kristjaan - you might need it!