Explained: The key decisions Sunderland will now make and exactly who will make them

The rebuild, Lee Johnson said, starts now.

The disappointment from the defeat to Lincoln City was still raw but Sunderland’s head coach said there was to time to waste, and no time for those at the club to feel sorry for themselves.

It is a pivotal summer on Wearside and there is going to be a significant level of squad turnover.

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Johnson expects to conduct a review of the campaign gone and its disappointing ending alongside the board and Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman this week, who will draw up plans for the path ahead.

Sunderland Sporting Director Kristjaan SpeakmanSunderland Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman
Sunderland Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman

So what’s on the agenda and who will be making the crucial calls?

We run you through the key decisions to be made...


Externally there have been some claims of a potential change in the dugout but it would mark a major departure from the club’s stated plan.

Sunderland head coach Lee JohnsonSunderland head coach Lee Johnson
Sunderland head coach Lee Johnson

Sunderland's season ended in bitter disappointment amid a poor run of results, but Speakman spoke recently of being encouraged by steps being taken to implement the desired playing philosophy.

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The first half of the play-off semi final second leg, with intense pressing all over the pitch in front of a vocal home crowd, is the long-term aim and Johnson was recruited specifically by Speakman and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus to realise that vision.

It has been a challenging second half to the season, with a ruinous defensive injury list and a number of COVID-19 challenges.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Johnson has not been able to work with a squad recruited specifically to fit the planned playing model.

Detailed profiles have been drawn up for every position and Johnson has had a role in that, stating in April his desire to play in a 4-3-3 or a variation of it.

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Johnson was asked on Friday about the potential consequences of a defeat for his future and brushed it aside, pointing not just to the length of his contract (which has two years to run) but also his close rapport with Louis-Dreyfus.

It was the vision of the new owner that convinced him to step down into League One and the pair have struck up a strong relationship.

Above all else, it's worth remembering these words from Louis-Dreyfus in his first and only club interview: "I think it's very important not to panic in football and for example a key moment will be this season.

"I truly believe we can get promoted this season because we have a strong squad, a good manager and the league is still open.

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"However, we need to follow our long-term plan. We can't panic if we fall short this year."

Expect Louis-Dreyfus to take this opportunity to double down on his strategy.


Sunderland have for the past few months been working on two plans: one in the event of promotion and one in the event of a fourth campaign in League One.

In the aftermath of Saturday's disappointment, Johnson intimated that he expects to be operating on a 'slightly reduced' budget next season.

That raised eyebrows, but is worth placing into context.

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Sunderland's most recent published accounts (reflecting the 2019/20 season) showed a still enormous wage bill of £14,504,000.

That will have continued to decline this season, particularly as a result of the now overturned salary cap, but the long-term goal is sustainability and that level is still too high.

Sunderland have some high earners out of contract this summer and so a reduction in budget does not necessarily mean a reduction in ambition.

The Black Cats feel they can find better value for their money and watching Lincoln's carefully assembled squad this season, it's easy to see why.

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Johnson was keen to stress the challenges the club faces, particularly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also believes that the new structures in place can deliver better results.

It's worth noting, too, that aside from the ill-judged spend on Will Grigg, Sunderland rarely paid transfer fees under the previous regime.

In the January acquisition of Ross Stewart, Speakman and Louis-Dreyfus showed they will invest if they feel there is future value.


Sunderland now have decisions to make on a number of players out of contract this summer and the remit for this will fall largely to Speakman.

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Johnson will of course give his clear recommendations and in terms of the ideal outcome, there will be a collaborative approach to assessing who will be offered fresh terms. But it will be Speakman who decides what terms are offered and whether deals are, in his eyes, right for the club.

We have already had an interesting insight into this dynamic over the future of Aiden McGeady, who waived an automatic extension in order to play on Saturday.

Johnson could not have been clearer that he wants the winger to stay, but Speakman will have to decide whether he deems it sensible from a financial and sporting perspective.

The head coach has already said on one or more occasions that he believes some players could be poached by clubs at a higher level.

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On Saturday he said: "There’s going to be a natural evolution of the squad now. Some players will have played their last game there today for various reasons.

"Some we may want to keep but can’t afford to, some we might not want and will want to move on, and others we might want to retain and will give them our best offer."


The new regime have placed a major emphasis on youth development and before deciding on their transfer targets, they must assess which players will graduate to the senior group.

All have been clear in stating that Elliot Embleton will be a key player next season, and the same is true of Jack Diamond.

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From the U23s group Josh Hawkes is the player clearly banging on the door with his superb form. Johnson has told the forward that this summer is a crucial chance for him to develop physically, saying that his technical ability is not in question.

The expectation is that as Sunderland build their squad over the summer, there will be chances for Hawkes to play in pre-season and from there it is up to him.

Elsewhere, there are decisions to be made as to whether Dan Neil and Anthony Patterson are part of the senior group or head out for experience of first-team football on loan.

And for the players who are approaching an age where senior football is a must (Oliver Younger being the most obvious example), there will need to be a decision made on where they go next.


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Stuart Harvey was appointed as the club's new head of recruitment in April and his brief is two-fold.

First and foremost to rebuild the long-neglected structures in his department, and secondly to begin tracking players who could fit the aforementioned player profiles.

Johnson now becomes part of this process as he, Speakman and Harvey identify key targets.

Speakman has been clear that no player will be signed without the explicit approval of the head coach. But as with contracts, it is the Sporting Director who will conclude the deals and make judgements on value.

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