Paul Reid opens up on Sunderland academy's challenges, his key plans and crucial category one decision
The consequences of Sunderland’s relegation to League One have been far-reaching and the club’s academy, an immense source of pride in recent years, has been no exception.
It’s an area of the club that has inevitably suffered as the struggles of the first team have filtered down.
The Black Cats have found themselves struggling to compete with the top Premier League clubs when it comes to recruiting players in the upper age groups, and are vulnerable to losing their best players before they are able to offer professional contracts at the age of 17.
To that end, this week’s decision from the Premier League to again award the academy category one status is a major boost.
It does not, of course, alleviate entirely any of the major issues.
What it does ensure, however, is that Sunderland are as protected as they can be and it also offers a vindication that the coaching processes and programmes in place are of an elite standard.
Sunderland continue to produce players catching the eye of the very best in the country.
The auditing process required the club to produce a 400-page plan outlining their vision and programme, which was then stringently tested in a visit from the Premier League.
The club had initally failed their previous audit three years ago, but on this occasion they passed first time and were credited with having achieved a significant improvement.
That serves as a reminder that investment, particularly in the upper age groups, was a challenge and concern pre-dating the current regime, and moving forward, the latest verdict protects vital funding for the club, as Academy Director Paul Reid this week explained.
“Going down to category two or three, you lose staffing which clearly affects the programme that you’re trying to implement,” he said.
“It has a big impact on players leaving the club, in terms of voluntarily or when big clubs come in, you get a vastly reduced compensation package because of our lesser status.
“Recruitment wise, you would obviously struggle when you have two category one academies either side of you in Newcastle or Middlesbrough.
“The games programme would be different, and that’s a big draw for parents when we can say we’re playing against other category one academies, there’s a prestige in playing these teams.”
The issue of compensation and player departures has been a thorny issue of late.
16-year-old Logan Pye recently became the latest player to leave the club at an age where Sunderland are facing major issues.
He has joined Manchester United and over the last 18 months, there have been similar instances of players joining the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool.
Under the Elite Player Performance Plan, the process in which the current category system was set up, the levels of compensation are set by the Premier League.
The challenge for the club losing a player is to try and then secure the best deal possible, often meaning securing sell-on or future appearance clauses.
This is not an issue exclusive to Sunderland, but it has been exacerbated by the quality of player they are producing and their status as a League One club.
The perception and criticism levelled at Sunderland under the current regime is that they have been too content to allow that process to happen.
Reid says there is a realism about where Sunderland find themselves, and that the money raised can be of benefit to the club, but rejects suggestions they have not fought to keep their best talent.
He also rejects any suggestion that the club have been the architect of the moves.
“The first thing to say is that rarely is it the [other] club approaching me that is the first time I’ve heard about an offer,” he said.
“Often agents will get involved and tell me these details before clubs make official contact.
“Once that happens, we sit down with the parents. The player can then speak to the club, and start talking about the personal terms the player would possibly sign.
“There is a set compensation structure in place that sets out exactly what we’re entitled to.
“We will always negotiate that and try and get the best deal for the football club, but there isn’t too much room for manoeuvre given that those levels are set out by the Premier League.
“As I mentioned, an advantage of Category One is that you get the highest level [of compensation].
“We’ve had conversations with the parents to map out how we see their pathway over the next five years, offered professional contracts as soon as we’re able that are very competitive for where we are right now.
“It’s certainly not a case of actively trying to lose players, it’s the exact opposite.
“It’s a constant challenge,” he added.
“Again, it’s a consequence of where the club has found itself.
“We’ve got strategies in place to keep our high-potential players. Some have been receptive to that, some haven’t.
“It’s certainly not a case of us sitting waiting for offers to come in, or us actively trying to seek these offers.
“We’re approached by agents who are facilitating these deals, and at that point the player has a decision to make.
“At no point am I able to tie those players down to a professional contract.
“We have alerts and spreadsheets to say at what point is the earliest time to offer these players professional contracts, we’ve done that, so anyone who leaves this club, I’m confident we can say we’ve done everything we can.
“We try and create an environment where they want to stay, but sometimes they want to take that opportunity.”
What is beyond doubt is that some of the best talent from a generation of players have moved on.
Some have not, and the club are soon expected to confirm they have agreed professional terms with one of the youngsters making a big impression at the academy.
A key priority for Reid is installing a recruitment network that can strengthen the upper age groups and ensure that even as Sunderland are vulnerable to clubs currently higher up the chain, they themselves are able to spot and recruit talent from other clubs.
To that end, former director Ged McNamee has returned and more appointments are expected imminently.
“It was one of the big things that I wanted to change,” Reid said.
“I’ve been given a blank canvas and the authority to actually structure it the way I want.
“We’ve brought in Ged McNamee, who everyone will know as he was academy manager here for a long time.
“I think it’s a brave appointment, he knows the club inside out, he knows my role inside out and he knows what it takes to develop a player and get players through the academy.
“To work alongside him there’s still two full-time roles and one other role that I’m looking to implement very soon, which should all be in place by the end of this month hopefully.
“Then there will be some national scouts put in place to get coverage of games across the country and possibly beyond that the month after that.”
As at first-team level, it’s a process of trying to build up the structures that suffered as the club faced a severe readjustment to life outside the top-two tiers.
Reid is also working on improving the programme for players throughout the age groups.
Lewis Dickman recently returned to the academy as Head of Coaching, while there have been investments in software to aid the analysis side of the programme.
“We’ve made improvements on the analysis side of things, acquiring software where players can interact with the coaches, where clips can be sent out and the players can be learning even when they’re not in the building,” Reid said.
“That’s been huge.
“The big thing at the moment is around the coaching. Lewis Dickman has come in as head of coaching, trying to implement a different way of coaching where the players take more responsibility.
“We’re making sure the training is competitive, that winning isn’t an ugly word.
“We want players to take ownership on the pitch, because I think that too often academies can be very prescriptive in terms of ‘do this, do that’.
“We want the players to think for themselves.”
A focus on winning will raise eyebrows when the club’s struggles at U18 and U23 level this season are so well-documented, even if the results in the lower age groups have been good.
Reid describes it as a ‘perfect storm’ at U23 level, with Sunderland’s better youngsters now promoted into the first-team set-up.
Recruitment is also a challenge, with Reid claiming that much of the competition in Premier League Two are paying their U23 players contracts often equivalent to League One senior wages.
He insists, however, that the results and struggles are not being considered as inevitable or acceptable
“There’s a situation where a player coming out of a Manchester City or Liverpool, who we identify as someone who would add value to our U23s and potentially push on to become part of our first team, a lot of the time they are just priced out of our market,” he said.
“The competition will offer these players long contracts on money we don’t pay our first-team players.
“We sell the club as best we can and our pathway to the first team, but when it comes down to we’re not always able to convince players.
“I want to be clear that it’s not acceptance, it’s just a consideration,” he added.
“The U23s in isolation, we’ve got almost a perfect storm. A football club that has found itself in League One, so the better younger players have moved up into the first-team squad.
“Those younger players tend not to come down to play for the U23s, and we have a scenario where we believe as an academy that it’s better for the U23 players to go out and get experience of playing senior football on loan.
“The reality is we can’t do both of those things and be competitive when it isn’t a level playing field against the Liverpools of this world.
“None of us are enjoying watching the U18 or U23 teams not pick up results, it affects the players, it affects the staff, it affects morale.
“What needs clarified is that we certainly want to be more competitive and that’s the aim.
“That’s what we’re talking about with the recruitment department, but the reality is that if we want to promote players and allow players out on loan, it will be difficult [for now].”
Reid describes the award of category one status as a sign that Sunderland are ‘controlling the controllables’.
For all the issues academy faces, this is a reminder that so much of the daily work is of an exceptionally high standard.
Sunderland’s status as a category one academy whose first-team plays in League One remains virtually unprecedented.
The challenges are immense and the task two-fold.
To maintain the standards so that the next generation of talent is protected, and to ensure that while they cannot outspend their rivals, they innovate and show the nous to compete.
It is on this front that Reid will be judged in the months and years ahead.