It’s impossible to judge exactly how a transfer window has panned out for any club a few days after the window has closed, but it’s apparent to me that for Sunderland, the summer of 2023 has some hallmarks of being the greatest one to date.
I’ve written previously about the recruitment policy and how we’re in the market for the best young talent available. I’ve also written about the players we do target, who’ve been scouted so well that they all have the right kind of personality to succeed at Sunderland.
It seems that this path will continue to be taken, no matter what.
The club has created the perfect environment for these players to learn and develop their footballing skills. If the culture and ethos is right, then the individuals we recruit, no matter what their age, will succeed.
The post-match interview from Pierre Ekwah and Jack Clarke after Saturday’s 5-0 thrashing of Southampton highlighted it brilliantly.
They spoke clearly about the direction of the club and they remained humble and thanked their teammates and coaches for their successes on the pitch.
They’re all pulling in the same direction. It’s a collective responsibility, and when Ekwah stated that ‘It's like playing football in the back garden with your mates’, I had a huge smile on my face.
The result on Saturday had been coming.
We’d played some good football in our first few fixtures and things really clicked against the Saints. It was great to see such maturity in our performance, especially from the likes of Abdoullah Ba, who’d been under scrutiny in recent weeks.
There’s been a lot of growth from a team who, a year ago, squandered a two-goal lead against a Burnley side that had recently been relegated. It was a very similar scenario on Saturday but with a different outcome, albeit against a defensively poor Southampton side.
Is this a different Sunderland, and if so, what’s changed?
For starters, we have no more experience than last year; arguably less, in fact. Our recruitment team is targeting the best young affordable talent, and it seems like experience doesn’t even enter the conversation.
The term ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’ applies now, and it really feels like the latest window was a shift to honour that.
The emphasis is firmly on youth, and we’ll only invest in experience to help the young players. For example, Tony Mowbray was recently quoted as saying that Bradley Dack was given a contract for a year to help guide the youngsters and to make an impact in the first team.
Ever since Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman entered the fray, some of our fans have reserved judgment on this approach, based on us ‘not having enough experience’.
I get that argument, but are we all looking at this in the wrong way?
We talk about the argument of youth versus experience and getting the right blend to succeed, but is that even the question? Has it evolved?
It’s arguably about bringing young footballers with greater quality than their predecessors to the club and to keep upgrading when we can. In that sense, this may be looked upon as the best transfer window since Dreyfus and Speakman took the helm.
Sunderland AFC has changed, and the supporters need to get used to more of these kinds of windows, because we’re now about selling assets when necessary and picking up younger talents in the transfer market.
We’ve acquired many young men who can succeed in a competitive environment, who have the right personality traits and want to develop personally, along with the club itself.
In a time where value for money is key to sustainability and success, this is the sensible and correct thing to do for the health and longevity of the club.
What’s made this window so successful is the upgrade in quality for places throughout the team in every position, bar central midfield. Physically strong and athletic players who are hungry for success and are willing to learn and develop now dominate the squad.
In short, we’re now a forward-thinking club, in tune with the modern day footballer.
Speakman has already spoken about the idea of having a streamlined and nimble squad, and the upgrade in quality is essential to this.
Take the right back position, for example. Last year, we had Lynden Gooch starting with Trai Hume nowhere near the starting eleven, and Niall Huggins capable of playing there but often injured.
We now have Hume as first choice, with Timothée Pembélé, signed from PSG, as backup, with Huggins as understudy.
This upgrade will mean that players have to raise their game each week, because if there’s any drop off, there’ll be a replacement ready to take their position. On the other hand, the players’ performance levels will rise in time due to greater competition.
If we get a silly offer for Hume in January, we can listen and name our price through the insurance of his new contract. If he leaves, we have a quality replacement ready to step up, and if he stays, we keep a quality player for now. Win-win.
The evidence of this window suggests another successful one for the short, medium and long-term future of the club.
The foundations of an exciting squad have been laid, and we’ve done an extremely good job to retain the services of Chris Rigg, Luke O’Nien, Dennis Cirkin, Dan Ballard, Trai Hume and Tommy Watson on long-term contracts.
Aa for the next window? We hold the aces, with young players on long contracts, and any club who wants them must pay up.
We need to hold our nerve with this recruitment strategy.
Rest assured that we’ve done our homework on these lads, and they have every chance of success in the environment that’s been created. They may not be the finished article yet but as a result of the scouting that’s been done on players coming in, the chances are they will succeed.
Our style of football will play to their strengths but they’ll need time to adapt. However, if we continue to invest in quality footballers, I think the question of adding experience will soon be a thing of the past.