Assessing exactly what the controversial salary cap means for Sunderland's summer business and beyond

Friday's seismic salary cap vote instantly transformed the landscape for Sunderland and their League One rivals.

Tuesday, 11th August 2020, 4:45 pm

So what exactly does it mean for the Black Cats as they look to make a number of new signings this summer, and what could the long-term implications be?

Phil Smith takes a closer look in his weekly Echo column

What it means for Sunderland's summer recruitment

Sign up to our Sunderland AFC newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

New salary cap rules will have major implications for Sunderland and their rivals

The narrow vote last Friday brought the salary cap into immediate force in League One, despite the threat of a looming challenge from the PFA.

The PFA have begun arbitration against what they say is an 'unlawful' and 'unenforceable' move.

They have also said that the rules shoud have no effect while abritration is ongoing. The EFL, however, remain of the view that the rules are now in place.

Arbitration is unlikely to be a swift process and so clubs are unlikely to risk breaking the rules in case that PFA challenge fails somewhere down the line.

The penalty for breaking the cap is initially financial, with fines staggered up to a 5% breach. After that, it is referred to an independent panel, with the prospect of points deductions then in play.

All of which means the rules are very much in Sunderland's thoughts as they bid to finalise their squad for the season that begins in just over a month.

With Elliot Embleton not counting towards the cap due to his age, Sunderland currently have 17 players who do.

Their contracts will be counted as a League One average for the first year of the cap, which has been set at £113,000 for the year.

So that leaves the Black Cats with a current wage bill, as far as the cap is concerned, of £1.92 million.

They still want to add around five players, which neatly fits the squad size cap under the new rules of 22.

It's in financing the deals that the difficulties begin.

As we (roughly) calculated, Sunderland will have around £580,000 to play with when it comes to those additions. That works out at £2,200 per week. That's a wage below what most in the squad earn and is clearly going to be a major challenge in terms of trying to sign targets who are likely to have interest from the Championship (Luke Garbutt and Scott Fraser, for example).

In reality, the wage they can actually offer will also likely to be less than that £2,200 figure, as any agent fee or related payment as part of the deal counts towards the cap.

Getting around it?

Clubs will no doubt be assessing ways in which they can 'beat' the cap, and the fact that promotion and cup bonuses are excluded will no doubt have caught the eye.

Clearly, the easiest way to create room on the wage bill is by offloading players.

That's perhaps easier said than done for Sunderland, whose squad remains on the light side.

Aiden McGeady is one player whose departure would suit all parties, and one of the interesting aspects of the rules is that it does include payments for the severance of contracts as counting towards the cap.

A looming contract issue

Another issue for Sunderland (and one where it is fair to wonder if better long-term planning could have been done last season) is that there may well be a need for contract renewals this season.

The vast majority of their squad have one year left on their current deals and that works well in the sense that their future will likely depend on how the campaign develops and whether or not the Black Cats win promotion.

There are key assets, though, who the club would be wise not to let enter the last six months of their deal.

Luke O'Nien and Jordan Willis are the two obvious examples, given the Championship interest they have fielded in the past. Denver Hume will be another if he continues his development, and there is every chance that Embleton could play his way into that category (now 21, he will count as and when he signed a new deal).

While all these players are counted as the division average now, any new deal they signed would be counted in full towards the cap.

Sunderland, then, would need room to play with if they want to prevent any player running down a deal.

They know only too well how quickly other clubs can swoop when that happens.

One big opportunity

Looking ahead to the new campaign, it's the clubs with players under the age of 21 who are ready for senior football that have the advantage.

They will have the greater room for new additions financially and will be better placed to compete with Championship clubs when it comes to wages.

In theory, Sunderland's Category One Academy should offer them a major boost in the new normal but the decline of the U18 and U23 sides in the Madrox era means that it does not.

In that sense, the imposition of the cap does at least offer one major opportunity.

Sunderland's budget will by nature be smaller than planned for the season ahead and what better way to utilise that than by reinvesting in the sides that are so in need of it?

Despite recent results, Sunderland should still be a major draw for players at category two and three clubs.

Similarly, the recent changes behind the scenes at the Stadium of Light hinted at a move towards a more modern approach to recruitment and with the cap in place, that has never been more crucial.

A wage cap does not suit Sunderland and robs the club from utilising the power of its fanbase in a financial sense, but one upside should be that there are now no excuses for investing properly in the club's long-term future.

The questions for the wider game

It is clear that Sunderland would be against a salary cap that essentially levels the playing field in League One, at least to an extent.

Yet is was also equally clear that some form of financial controls in the football league pyramid were an absolute neccessity given the dangerous levels of spending from many clubs.

What remains utterly unfathomable is the cap has come into place in the third and fourth tier, but not in the Championship where the most severe and unsustainable wage spending takes place, and where controls are evidently most required.

While it may not be a concern to many of the clubs in League One and League Two, the rules as they stand risk further deepening the already steep divide between second and third-tier clubs.

The current rules as they stand are also likely to pose some major challenges for many of the clubs who voted for them and will benefit on face value.

For one, the flat cap does not allow for reinvestment when an asset is sold or when a club goes on an exceptional cup run.

Secondly, while the cap should mean more academy players get an opportunity initially, the cap will make it far more difficult to keep hold of or get a fair price for those players when interest inevitably comes from the division above.

The cap presents major challenges for the likes of Sunderland, Ipswich Town and Portsmouth, meaning the stakes when it comes to promotion have never been higher than they are this season.

The caps in this form, however, pose a far wider danger to the football league ecosystem that could take far longer to be fully realised.