Phil Smith: Examining the state of play at Sunderland ahead of major summer rebuild

We are approaching a month since Sunderland's third attempt at winning promotion to League One was brought to a bitterly disappointing end.

Tuesday, 15th June 2021, 4:45 pm

The immediate response was swift; seven players released within days.

In the aftermath of that defeat to Lincoln City, there was a clear effort to signal that the way forward had been laid out.

Though the season had again ended in failure, in that opening 45 of the second leg there was a blueprint for the rebuild that will happen this summer.10,000 sounded like 40,000, that energy in the Stadium of Light harnessed in a purposeful, aggressive display of high pressing.

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Sunderland owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus
Sunderland owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus

Lee Johnson said that would be the template, but also warned of significant change ahead. The retained list that followed underlined that point.

Since then there has been a period of relative calm and to an extent, that has been welcome.

A year ago there was uncertainty not just over the upcoming campaign as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but over the entire future of the club and its direction under an ailing ownership regime.

This time around, while there has been little yet in the way of concrete developments in terms of contract renewals or incoming deals, there is a general sense of optimism this is the start of a long-term, strategic plan for the club.

Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman

An important interjection from Kyril Louis-Dreyfus in the aftermath of that play-off defeat also served to bring significant clarity at a club where uncertainty had so often reigned in previous summers.

First and foremost, he stressed his commitment to keeping Johnson as Head Coach.

That had been expected, given the way both he and Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman had previously stressed a commitment to the plan even in the event of a disappointing end to the campaign.

All the same, there had always been a question mark over how the new majority shareholder would respond to that first setback, and the first real pressure point of his tenure. With a reassuring sense of calm, was the answer.

Equally significant was the response Louis-Dreyfus offered when asked about the extent to which he was preparing to spend his way out of League One.

Supporters already had a sense of what was coming.

Sustainability had already been a key word from the new regime, while Johnson had hinted in the aftermath of the play-off exit that he was likely to be working with a reduced budget next season.

Louis-Dreyfus pointedly stressed the ongoing impact of the pandemic. The club made a loss in the 2019/20 campaign and evidently, the figures will be considerably worse for the most recent campaign where the entirety of the regular season was played behind closed doors.

Sunderland will not 'splash the cash'; even if there is a willingness to invest where there is deemed to be valued.

The wage bill has remained high in the last two seasons, and so there is a belief that even in reducing that spend, Sunderland can still end up with a higher quality squad.

Key to that, the new regime believes, is the diligent use of data and analytics to supplement more traditional scouting. Equally key is that while they are clearly playing catch-up given what they inherited, the continuity Sunderland have enjoyed this summer in terms of key personnel behind the scenes raises hopes of significantly superior forward planning.

In terms of the business ahead, the January signing of Ross Stewart is perhaps instructive.

Louis-Dreyfus will sanction an investment in terms of a fee if the player is deemed to have a significant upside, with room to develop their value further.

With the other central tenet of the philosophy being to promote academy talent wherever possible, then the template for the summer is pretty much set.

Supporters want to see ambition, of course (and there could be no greater coup this summer than the return of Dion Sanderson, for example), but after three seasons of watching an often unbalanced and one-paced squad fall short, there is an acceptance that a new approach is needed.

The challenge is in striking the balance right, with League One looking arguably more competitive than at any stage since Sunderland came down.

Sheffield Wednesday may have off-field issues but they have a core of good players and a manager in Darren Moore who was recruited superbly at this level in the past.

Rotherham United are always a third-tier force, and Lincoln City and Oxford United are unlikely to be any weaker than last season.

Despite losing some key players early in the summer, Portsmouth will surely be stronger under the Cowley brothers and the same is likely to be true of Charlton Athletic under Nigel Adkins.

Ipswich Town, meanwhile, look to be the division's most aggressive sides in the early stages of the window and have made their commitment to trying to get out of the division quickly clear.

It underlines the need to recruit well and patiently.

Leading the new recruitment team, Speakman needs to produce the strongest squad Sunderland have had in four years.

Balancing that with the need to reset the club's strategy is his first major test.

By and large the market has been quiet thus far, a clear consequence of the way the pandemic has forced a reset of finances and budgets across the pyramid.

For Sunderland, the picture is also clearly complicated by the fact that four potentially key figures in Johnson's squad for next season are still weighing up contract offers.

That will have a significant impact on what the club does next.

All eventualities have been planned for, particularly as there has long been an acceptance that at the very least, Luke O'Nien and Charlie Wyke will have offers to step up to the Championship.

Sunderland have committed to a collaborative approach to recruitment and renewal, typified by the talks to try and keep Aiden McGeady at the club.

Johnson is eager to keep him, and from a footballing perspective that makes obvious sense. For Speakman, the challenge is doing so in a way that fits in with the club's desire for long-term sustainability.

It's one call that nearly surmises the path ahead; balancing the obvious need for promotion next season with the need to match the club's new long-term goals.

The relative sense of calm has been aided by good communication with the fan groups, and the promotion of Sunderland Ladies to the FA Women's Championship was a hugely heartening example of an early promise made good on.

There is, for sure, much that remains to be discussed.

Despite drawing a clear (and very, very deliberate) line between himself and the Madrox regime when arriving, the recent comments from the Louis-Dreyfus regime have suggested a more collaborative approach. That may have raised some eyebrows, particularly when those aforementioned recent accounts suggest there is still much to be done in terms of repaying the parachute payment debts.

More widely, this feels like a summer in which Sunderland are yet to really reveal their hand.

In the coming weeks we should begin to see the results of the extensive work currently being undertaken behind the scenes.

The stakes are high, but the credit the new regime currently holds means the mood is one of genuine curiosity and excitement to see what they produce.

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