Explained: How Sunderland's revamped recruitment operation will actually work as key appointment nears

A crucial part of Sunderland's footballing rebuild is expected to be confirmed in the coming weeks when Stuart Harvey joins from Blackburn Rovers as the club's new head of recruitment.

Thursday, 8th April 2021, 12:00 pm

The appointment has not been officially confirmed as the final details are finalised, but Rovers are advertising for a replacement ahead of the move.

Harvey will play a crucial role in an almost entirely revamped recruitment structure.

Here, we explain how that process will work, and where each key player fits into the picture...

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Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman


Harvey will report into Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman and one of his first and most important tasks will be to build a robust database of potential targets.

Both Speakman and Lee Johnson have been extraordinarily candid in detailing the threadbare operation they inherited. Sunderland's scouting departments were cut back severely in the opening months of Madrox's tenure and Harvey's position has been vacant since the departure of Tony Coton last July. Coton left alongside then head of football Richard Hill as Stewart Donald's initial power base at the club was eroded.

Tentative steps towards a new, more data-driven approach were taken as figures like Jim Rodwell and David Jones grew in influence, as seen in the signing of Arbenit Xhemajli.

Clearly, though, much of the recruitment decisions and work remained in the hands of then manager Phil Parkinson.

Unsurprisingly, then, much of Sunderland's January business was influenced by Speakman and Johnson's contacts in the game.

Data played an important role, but experience was also key. Carl Winchester, for example, performed strongly when it came to identifying a candidate to replicate Grant Leadbitter's role in the side. Important, though, was that he was a player who Johnson knew well.

Harvey's role (and he will be supported by a significantly stronger department generally) will be to build a far wider pool of players from which the club can select targets. The club hope to significantly expand their range to the continent and beyond.

The new regime hope that the process will be helped by a far clearer playing philosophy being implemented by Johnson, focused firstly on an aggressive high press and an attacking style in possession.

Harvey and his team's search will be tailored to the 'profiles' required to implement this in each position.


Sunderland are placing modernisation at the heart of their strategy to rebuild under Kryil Louis-Dreyfus, and a greater emphasis on data and analytics is a crucial part of that.

Chief Operating Officer Steve Davison has a keen interest on this front and the appointment of James Young as head of Data and Analysis highlights this shift in approach.

This shift will absolutely extend to the recruitment operation and in that regard, it's telling that Harvey is credited with modernising Blackburn's recruitment processes.

Johnson himself is used to his approach from his time at Bristol City and in that regard, there will be alignment across the football structure.

The data will not be definitive when it comes to recruiting players, however.

Both Johnson and Speakman place considerable importance on the character and personality of potential recruits, eager to ensure as best as possible that players brought in will suit the environment.

The recruitment department will therefore be tasked with carrying out exhaustive research into the background of any potential recruit.

In January, a lot of this crucial but behind-scenes work was done by members of Johnson's backroom staff, including assistant head coach Jamie McAllister.

Johnson has also said previously that given the increased role of analytics in recruitment across the game, finding an edge on other clubs can sometimes mean taking a calculated gamble on certain deals.

So while the data will be crucial every time Sunderland go into the market, it will be one of a number of considerations.


Speakman has been absolutely clear that no player will arrive without the explicit approval of Johnson.

Both Harvey and Speakman will have a significant input in identifying targets, with the three discussing and debating the potential merits of a recruit before the final decision is made.

Those potential recruits will be drawn from Harvey's database but Speakman has also said that the head coach will of course be able to put forward his own ideas, whether they came from opponents faced or his own research and contacts in the game.

The aim of a more collaborative approach is that Sunderland will avoid mistakes made in the past; where the churn of managers and a lack of overarching vision has left squads lacking both balance and long-term value.

The latter is particularly key as a central part of the Louis-Dreyfus vision is long-term financial sustainability, and one ​of the goals Speakman and Johnson have both identified is ensuring a more balanced age profile within the squad.


Once targets have been identified and approved by Johnson, the process then moves beyond the Head Coach.

Speakman will then look to conclude a deal with the club and player in question.

Undoubtedly the entire process will be closely followed by chairman Louis-Dreyfus, who has taken a hands-on role since assuming the position earlier this year and has been clear that he intends to continue in the same vein.

Louis-Dreyfus intends to invest to get the club back to where it belongs but speaking earlier this year, Speakman was absolutely clear in stating that the club would not overspend in search of instant success.

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