The state of play at Sunderland with January plans and club sale under the microscope
Sunderland's turbulent campaign continues at pace, with Stewart Donald confirming his intentions to actively sell the club in the near future.
On the pitch, hopes are tentatively rising that Phil Parkinson and his squad might finally be building some momentum, but the January window nevertheless remains crucial if the Black Cats are to achieve their goals this season.
In a Q&A with supporters on Wednesday, we ran through the key issues and questions that surround the club at the moment….
On whether the squad has the quality to go up….
This has been such a big debate from the moment Sunderland dropped into League One.
The biggest budget line has been used a lot, but value for money is always a different matter and much of that was from the wage bill inherited.
So is this squad the best in the league and underperforming, or an average squad poorly assembled?
For much of Jack Ross’ tenure, the perception was the former.
Under Phil Parkinson, that has probably changed.
His time in the job so far probably provides something close to the truth. It is a squad capable of getting out of this league, as we saw for much of last season and in the last three games, but is absolutely not significantly better than the six or seven other best squads in the division.
I think it is weaker than last season, but it is also a weaker division than last season.
Automatic promotion still feels too far away for me, and if Sunderland are to achieve it, they would need a long, long winning run.
For that to happen, they need a striker who can be far more clinical.
I think they now need a midfield alternative for Power and Dobson, and perhaps a wing-back to ensure the threat doesn’t diminish if O’Nien or Hume need a rest.
The current system means the lack of a quick winger hasn’t been too exposed, but if Parkinson wants flexibility then that’s another area where they are lacking.
So there’s a lot of work to do if Sunderland are serious about getting themselves right in the mix.
As Tom Flanagan said at the weekend, they’re probably lucky that the weakness of the league means their poor form for such a long period means they aren’t adrift.
But the door is open.
On whether Aiden McGeady must leave before Sunderland can recruit….
There’s probably two elements to this.
Firstly, with McGeady being in the top bracket of earners at the club, it goes without saying that his departure would free up some room for Parkinson to go back into the market.
Having said that, Parkinson was clear that the instruction from the owner was to focus on incomings, and that he did not have to move players on before recruiting.
The owner has also said on two occasions that funds will be made available to strengthen the squad.
Then we have to consider that Laurens De Bock and Dylan McGeouch have already left, removing their wages from the bill.
With those departures, the squad does genuinely look a little thin so there would be no excuse for not strengthening, regardless of McGeady’s status.
The club seem confident that they will find a solution, though with 18 months on his contract and being settled in the area, it’s really in McGeady’s hands.
If he does go, that would be a significant departure and I think fans would be entitled to expect a concerted effort to bring in a similarly dangerous attacking player.
But it should not prevent the business that needs doing being done in the interim.
On whether fans can expect fees to be spent this month.…
Loans are clearly going to be an important part of Sunderland’s business and certainly once balanced against likely outgoing, we aren’t going to be talking about a major surge in the wage bill.
However, Donald has vowed to put ‘sufficient’ funds in place to strengthen the squad and so that means making improvements over and above what Phil Parkinson had at his disposal coming into the window.
Parkinson also said that he expects Sunderland to spend fees if they can identify players who can add ‘value’ to the club.
So it would be a major disappointment if the club did not invest this month.
The gap between expectations set at the start of the summer and the subsequent business done to try and achieve it was vast, and that can’t happen again.
On what kind of additions Sunderland fans can expect this month….
Steve Parkin spoke last week of feeling the squad might just benefit from a touch more experience. Specifically, players who have played football at Championship level and so have a better grasp and experience of the pressure that comes with playing for a club like Sunderland in a promotion push.
Parkinson, however, has also said that he will look to bring in players who add ‘value’. So here we’re talking about players on the up who can grow their value here, players like Luke O’Nien and Jordan Willis. Stewart Donald has also told fans there will be signings ‘for the future’.
You’d hope so, because any successful future Sunderland has will surely be built on recruiting more players in that category who can grow with the club and maybe bring in a profit somewhere down the line.
It’s surely one of the key targets for the expanded recruitment team in the next couple of windows.
On the owner’s decision to sell the club and the explosive statement released on Tuesday
The statement released by the club yesterday was really poor, in my opinion.
It could only ever serve to deepen divisions and whatever you think of the statement by four fan groups calling for a change in ownership, we would all acknowledge that this season has not been good enough.
Those did not speak for all fans but in fairness, nor did they claim to.
If this season is not successful, it will not be because of supporters who want more from a club languishing near its lowest ever position.
It will be due to a summer when the club and squad went backwards after failed takeover talks, a managerial change that for two months saw results plummet (and hopefully are now an upward curve).
It will be due to very mixed recruitment, essential and effective structures not put in place earlier in the current hierarchy’s tenure.
It also seemed a touch disingenuous to suggest that the current board would like more to time to build, when we know that it has nearly been sold twice in the last six months or so.
Regardless of all of this, where people stand on these points and the two statements from the various parties, the club isn’t where it needs to be and regardless of how we got here, the right decision has probably been made to seek change.
I think the club needs more day-to-day management and a clearer, longer-term strategy.
It seems strange that the board is seeking a sale while maintaining the club is so well-placed, which I think reflects a breakdown in relationships and some big mistakes made.
Sunderland is crying out for stability and for me, it won’t go far until it gets it.
But right now, it seems as if it will have to be a new ownership team, with ideas, enthusiasm (and pretty deep pockets) to achieve that.
Where FPP fit in to the confusing off-pitch picture at Sunderland
This is probably the biggest question surrounding Sunderland at the moment and it’s incredibly difficult to get to the bottom of.
They were absolutely, to begin with, in talks regarding taking a majority shareholding in the club. That would have seen Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven stay in some capacity.
Their visit to Wearside and attendance at the game against AFC Wimbledon was a sign of their interest.
Ultimately, they opted against that, opting for this far more limited loan arrangement.
Donald has subsequently spoken of ‘secondary benefits’ to the club and the city, including concert opportunities and the like.
So in short, it seems very strange that the extent of their interest was merely a loan, and that their interest ends when that has been satisfied.
It felt significant also that the deal was done through a new company, FPP Sunderland, and not through their investment company MSD Partners. It felt like a personal and very different kind of deal to what they usually do, even if they did not want to be front and centre of the day-to-day running.
Nevertheless, it is clear that at this stage, the club are not expecting FPP to be the new owners.
Only they can ultimately say why, and so far they have been steadfast in offering no comment on their interest and ambition.
What we know for sure is that loan must be satisfied if the club changes hands, and adds another layer of complication to the process.
On Juan Sartori’s involvement….
If we go back to when Sartori arrived, it was said that his financial firepower and connections in the game would take Sunderland to the next level.
I think it’s fair to say that hasn’t happened.
It seemed (or indeed was the case) that the club were heading in a different direction with Mark Campbell and then FPP, but it was then restated more than once, by both Charlie Methven and Stewart Donald in the aftermath of the FPP injection, that he would be stepping up his involvement.
We have not seen him at the Stadium of Light since the opening day of the season and there has been no sign of his increased influence in the last couple of months.
It seemed strange timing to say he was returning to the fold more prominently, when he had just been elected as a senator in Uruguay and clearly has major political ambitions there.
The latest on Sunderland’s contract talks, with a number of players coming to the end of their deal….
I think the situation varies from player to player.
The players out of contract (to the best of my knowledge) are: Jon McLaughlin, Joel Lynch, Tom Flanagan, Jack Baldwin, Alim Ozturk, Luke O’Nien, Duncan Watmore, Chris Maguire, Benji Kimpioka and Ethan Robson.
There are options on some of those, though not many. Luke O’Nien is one, and the signal from both the club and the player is that he will be at the club next season.
Jon McLaughlin has said that he wants to stay at the club, but recently told me that there has been no progress since the summer, when Stewart Donald said he would restart talks after initially approaching the Scot and his representatives over a new deal.
For the most part, you would say that otherwise it’s a big few months for a group of players, who will either have to prove that they are good enough to go up with Sunderland if they achieve promotion, or worth keeping around should they again fall short.
It’s not too unusual for teams at this level to have a few players coming to the end of their deals and it probably makes sense here. After two years, you will need something of a rebuild either way.
Robson and Kimpioka are clearly slightly different.
Robson has interest from football league clubs for a loan this month and he will not be short of suitors should he depart in the summer.
It would be such a shame if he left without really getting a chance to show whether he can cut it here, as he certainly seems to have all the attributes.
It’s gone very quiet with regards to Kimpioka, who made an impression on Phil Parkinson but not enough to get regular first-team action.
If he and his representatives remain insistent that he must be considered a senior player to sign up, then you suspect that is not going to happen.
The question then becomes, do you cash in this month?
With all these questions, there’s now another factor at play.
Will any of these issues be addressed while the club is up for sale? Previous experience tells us probably not, and that’s a big concern, and another reason why this club has so suffered from the chronic instability it has gone through for years no.