What we do and don't know about the short and long term future at Sunderland
So pre-season is here, just like that.
In some ways that utterly gut-wrenching goal from Patrick Bauer feels like just moments ago, and yet it has been a summer in which many issues seem to have dragged on.
Sunderland, without question, begin their pre-season campaign in far greater shape than this time last year, when trialist Anton Forrester started up front and Joel Asoro was an unused sub, his move to Swansea City all but confirmed.
But the takeover talk brought an element of uncertainty that hung over the summer after that agonising end to the season.
In recent days significant updates with regards to on and off-field matters have been provided by Charlie Methven and Jack Ross.
So what do we know, and what do we not?
Mark Campbell’s consortium have not at this stage ended their interest in buying a significant stake in the club, but Charlie Methven’s recent interview signalled what had become increasingly clear for a week or so.
The hurdles to a deal being finalised are too significant to be cleared in the short-term and hopes are fading fast that any deal will happen.
As such, the only realistic prospect in terms of the boardroom structure for the start of the season is what we have now.
Crucially, Methven’s interview also told us that as talks continue in the long term, other parties will now be considered.
Financially, then, Sunderland will be operating to the same model as the last year, pushing for greater revenues in the drive for self-sufficiency.
Excellent season card sales are a significant boon in that sense, and the levels to which fans have committed again has perhaps not had the attention it deserves on a number of levels.
While revenues and costs edge closer together the onus will be on the current hierarchy to invest and put money in where necessary, as they have insisted they will continue to do in light of increased debate about the deal struck last summer. They absolutely insist that the club is currently in good financial health even without futher investment.
Clearly, the push for increased revenues will also come with a drive to reduce costs where possible, the departure of Lee Cattermole (and Donald Love imminently) a sign of that, with the bulk of the huge costs of those contracts being managed over a longer period of time.
We know that Sunderland will continue to seek investment for future seasons, with Methven articulating in detail the benefits that will come from having an increased cashflow that allows the club to act more ‘strategically’, in all areas from the academy to first team recruitment.
Sunderland will be a competitive League One outfit on and off the pitch again this year, but the question over the long-term strategy is one that will rightly persist, and Methven’s comments acknowledged that.
Sunderland’s current owners have done much that supporters will be keen to see continued long into the future, in terms of connection and communication.
On the football side, there remains much to be rebuilt after the ‘ground zero’ effect of relegation to the third tier.
Why Mark Campbell’s takeover stalled remains largely unclear but we do know that it was not because his plans for the football side were unimpressive.
A Director of Football, among other things, was lined up and there is recognition there that the ‘structure’ Jack Ross spoke of so often last season can still be improved.
When Ross spoke of Luton and Barnsley’s ‘identity’ after missing out on automatic promotion, it raised a question that remains fundamental.
As a footballing outfit, what is the template that can lead to and deliver a competitive Premier League club in the long term?
Methven’s interview signals that is a question to be revisited over the coming year, perhaps with Campbell’s consortium and perhaps with others.
The pervading sense had been for much of the summer, as Stewart Donald had insisted, that the outcome of these investment talks would not have a major affect on the plans for this season, financially at least. The financial boost was for the future, rather than the now.
So in that sense, the short-term picture does not seem to have changed a great deal.
The fading hopes of a deal with Campbell may bring into focus the question of where Juan Sartori stands, now that his presidential campaign has ended unsuccessfully.
That, though, is no longer an immediate concern as August 3rd nears.
It’s worth dwelling a little longer on the extensive comments from Jack Ross with regards to where Sunderland stand in the market.
There are three key elements:
- Any further additions must be balanced out by departures
- Ross is broadly pleased with what he currently has at his disposal
- A further injection of pace and strength is nevertheless needed to take the next step
It reflects the fact that Sunderland had a sizeable squad last year, a very competitive one but also one that ultimately fell short.
Ross currently has two options for just about every position and so there is a reluctance to add more without balancing.
A lack of fresh investment does not prohibit signing players for fees but it underlines the need for sensible management of finances.
It could leave Ross with some tough decisions to make, but he will push for the additions he needs and can take comfort from the fact that there is no need to move on key assets like Jon McLaughlin and Aiden McGeady.
In adding pace and strength, central defence and attacking midfield are two obvious areas.
Luke O’Nien could help with the latter, but the business between now and the end of August is about making those upgrades to the squad in a sensible manner and it is clearly crucial that Ross gets that backing.
The identification of George Dobson as a target is revealing.
Young, with room to improve and future value, but with a lot of experience already under his belt.
How Sunderland achieve that perfect squad balance is the big question but they are starting from a stronger position than last season.
Style of Play
Many supporters are keen for an improved brand of football this season and it’s here that Ross’ comments are again interesting.
In adding more pace and strength, Ross would hope to have the double boost of having a side better equipped for the division and therefore better to watch.
He has spoken of the need for more clean sheets, but that does not necessarily mean being more defensive, as much about having control and better energy and discipline off the ball.
He also said that the greater continuity in terms of the squad should pave the way for a stronger identity on the pitch, something else he felt the likes of Luton and Barnsley better enjoyed last season.
He will know that he is set to face significant scrutiny on that.