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Sunderland lack leadership — change is needed

“If leadership isn’t provided from the very top of the club and the necessary changes aren’t made, the owner will soon see that all the work done so far will be for naught,” writes David Holloway.

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

The last few weeks at Sunderland AFC have highlighted a shortage of leaders on and off the pitch.

Those in positions of power at the club, responsible for shouldering the burden of responsibility, seem remote from the public, giving an impression of lacking the necessary strength of character. Currently, it appears they view their privileged positions as burdens to be endured rather than cherished. This perspective must change.

While one might expect management speak to resonate with the corporate figures running our club, the evidence suggests they can offer soundbites but lack the character, knowledge, or will to follow through. This lack of leadership is dangerous if left unchecked.

Maybe recent disastrous events have brought this lack of strong leadership into focus, but it’s been endemic in the club for too long. Perhaps, in the early days of the rebuild, patience was warranted due to the enormity of the task. However, nearly three years into this process, there are no longer any excuses.

On the pitch, leaders can emerge in different ways; they don’t need to replicate the Kevin Ball style of leadership with all passion, fist-shaking, and crunching tackles.

When we emerged from League One and established ourselves in the Championship, there were obvious leaders in the team, each showcasing different leadership styles. However, since promotion, we have added only one experienced player to the squad, Bradley Dack, hardly a leader. Most of the others seem more suited to academy football. This is not a slight on them; it’s just a fact.

Sunderland v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Then there was Speakman’s leadership group in the summer of 2021? I don’t think this has been mentioned in any dispatches by the club since those early days in this process. The idea of a leadership group was a very Speakman idea. Does it still exist? Could they find five from the current group of players to form such a group? That is questionable.

The talented young players who we all admire so much could do with some help, some guidance, some on-field leaders. This makes our transfer business over the last three windows perplexing as if they had had that help, it is pretty obvious that they would have developed even further and even faster than they have done to date. There would have been leaders to share the burden of expectation.

Can we expect such additions in this window or the next? If the last three windows are evidence of what we are looking at, then the answer is no, and we will all be left scratching our heads as to why.

Off the pitch, it is not much different. At the Head Coach level, it seems that after the strong personalities of Alex Neil and Tony Mowbray left under different circumstances - but for similar reasons - then we appointed a very inexperienced Head Coach who has, so far, utterly failed to demonstrate leadership skills. Should we have expected him to step up to be a leader? Not really given his past experiences.

We were warned by Rangers fans that a trait of Michael Beale was to deflect responsibility onto others. His early utterings show this warning to ring true. Beale is the public face of the club, but how can he be a leader if he doesn’t take responsibility for anything?

Sunderland v Newcastle United - Emirates FA Cup Third Round Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The body language on the touchline between Beale and Dodds, whether they are hiding in the dugout or doing a relay between the dugout and the technical area, would be comical if it weren’t so pathetic. Beale as Head Coach should be leading from the front.

Look at the best managers around, and you get a clue. Pep, Klopp, Arteta, and Emery are active participants in the game, transmitting their energy to their team. They lead from the front and protect their players no matter what. By contrast, Beale sits on his hands and waits, abdicating his responsibility to his inexperienced and vulnerable team.

In my opinion, that is unforgivable. If that’s his style, then that’s his style, but it won’t work here, just as it didn’t work for him elsewhere.

Away from the football, the lack of leadership is just as bad, if not worse. Other than the occasional interview being fed with friendly questions from the club’s media team, we never hear from those at the top level of the club.

As fans, we often complain about our coverage in the local media – rightly so — it is absolutely pathetic. But if the club ignores the media as it seems that they do, then is it any wonder that we get a bad press?

As custodians of this club, then the board is supposed to be looking after it — to be improving it — so that it can continue for future generations. They have a responsibility as the current leaders to do so.

Despite our current frustrations, they have made some progress with the playing squad. A huge weakness through the playing and coaching staff is that no one has a proven track record at the very top level, no one who knows what it takes to implement the standards that the big clubs have. That leader is missing on the playing side.

Sunderland v Coventry City - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

Off the field, the club has been left as it was, and that is in a sorry state. Yes, the academy infrastructure has been improved, but little else has, and the insular and tetchy nature of the ownership group is difficult to understand. They are in a position of great power, and with that power comes great responsibility. Why are they so shy? Why are they so reactive, so remote, and often so negative to volunteer groups like SO37?

They have the opportunity to bring so much joy to a huge, loyal, and passionate fanbase, but they shy away from the challenge of engagement and questioning. That is very much the wrong approach to take for a club such as ours. Their approach sucks energy out of the place and is wholly counterproductive.

We don’t ask for much really. We know where we have been; the end of the Ellis Short years and the Madrox period were much worse than this; that should not be forgotten. We are miles away from those days, and the current ownership group retains some credit for that.

However, the in-stadium experience and retail are still awful; the hand dryers are still not fixed; the cleanup after the derby not attended to. These things may appear small but ignored for years now – they demonstrate a lack of care, a lack of someone taking responsibility, a lack of will, a lack of leadership, and a lack of drive to improve the club.

If Kyril wants to make a success of this - his project – which I still believe that he does - and just as importantly he needs to at a personal and professional level - he must learn to lead and that means more than just occasionally listening and issuing half-baked promises to resolve certain issues after the event. He and his executives need to drive the change not pretend that they are reacting to it. They need to lead.

He needs to make the whole club puff its chest out, try its best in all areas and regain some pride in itself because the 6-year disaster which preceded him is still an open wound and the recovery and rebuild remain extremely fragile.

So, if that leadership isn’t provided from the very top of the club, whether that is from The Head Coach, The Executives, or Owners and the necessary changes made, he will soon see that all the work done so far will be for naught.

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