Phil Smith's Sunderland AFC Q&A: Budget, retained list and key transfer calls under the microscope as summer rebuild begins

Sunderland have begun their busy summer rebuild after the bitter disappointment of missing out on promotion at the third time of asking.

Tuesday, 25th May 2021, 1:00 pm

With key contract decisions to be made, Phil Smith has been taking questions from readers on all the key calls to be made.

You can read his responses below...

What’s the situation with contract talks - when will the players and fans be told who is staying and going? When do we expect to see the retained list, should it be quite small ?

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Sunderland are facing a fourth season in League One with key calls now to be made
Sunderland are facing a fourth season in League One with key calls now to be made

I expect the players will be informed in the not-too-distant future.

The club have to submit their retained list to the EFL by the end of tomorrow, but it is entirely at their discretion when they choose to publish it.

Before attending the U23 play-off final at Crystal Palace last night the club’s executive team met with Kyril Louis-Dreyfus to work on planning for next season.

The out-of-contract players will have been right near the top of the agenda.

In all likelihood, they will confirm the departure of some players and state that they remain in talks with a number of others who they would ideally like to keep.

The retained list might be a little longer than people initially expect.

There are twelve players under contract for next season, though clearly some of those players met yet depart the club this summer.

Also, within the list of those whose deals are expiring there are understood to be some where the club has an option to extend.

But regardless of exactly what the retained list looks like, there will be significant change in the playing squad this summer.

Will Lee Johnson be given the chance to try and win promotion next year? He still has two years left on his contract.

Johnson has a good rapport with Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and upon his arrival, the Chairman stated clearly that he would not panic should Sunderland fall short this season.

Behind the scenes there is a recognition that the club’s remarkable raft of defensive injuries has had a major impact, and I expect Johnson to be given a chance to work with a squad built specifically to fit the style that has been promised from the new executive team.

That first-half performance against Lincoln is the template and replicating that next season is where Johnson will be judged.

Any insight into which players will be released/offered terms/retained?

Lee Johnson has been clear that he wants to keep Aiden McGeady, Charlie Wyke and Luke O’Nien at the club.

Expect all three to be offered deals and it will then be a question of what terms they can be offered, and what interest they have from elsewhere.

Denver Hume is another player who Johnson believes has real value going forward so I strongly expect the club to move to keep him.

Elsewhere, Lee Burge is believed to be one of the players with an option in his contract and so though I expect Johnson to revamp his goalkeeping department this summer, I expect him to be on the retained list.

Then there are big calls to make.

Josh Scowen has been a regular under Johnson but the 18-month deal he signed last January was a reflection of his status as a Championship player stepping down a level at the time.

Max Power has, in my opinion, been a good servant with an excellent attitude but there are calls to be made on just how much refreshment this squad needs.

It certainly feels like an end of a cycle and so tough calls will have to be made somewhere.

Do you think Chris Maguire and Aiden McGeady should be handed new deals?

I would make every (realistic) attempt to keep McGeady.

Despite his exile last year, I think he has proven his commitment to getting the club out of this division.

Remember that injury means he has not had a proper pre-season since the club has dropped into this division, and that he has on numerous occasions played through minor injuries in an attempt to help secure vital points.

His quality is not in question.

It will be fascinating to see how that one develops, though. Johnson wants to keep him, but Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman will have to make a judgement on whether the contract McGeady wants makes sense in line with the club’s desire for long-term sustainability.

It will be a blow for Johnson if an agreement cannot be reached.

On Chris Maguire, I think he’s been a very good signing for Sunderland and someone who will ultimately be remembered fondly. I think he’s been inconsistent but time and time again he’s found a way to produce.

My personal view is that it is time to make Elliot Embleton a proper member of the senior squad.

He has had some badly-timed injuries in the last two seasons but it frustrates me that he has never had the chance to put a consistent run of starts together. You can’t judge a player on 20 minutes here and there, particularly not in his position.

That’s not to criticise the decision to loan him out, necessarily. His gametime was clearly threatened by Maguire’s decision to stay and so a loan then made sense.

Though it looks odd to see him playing in the play-off final, I think it was a brave and good call to send him to a good team playing good football.

He’s a two-footed, talented former youth international who has now had two successful loans.

Will he thrive at Sunderland? Who knows. But let’s make sure we’ve seen enough to be definitive either way.

Will Will Grigg come back this summer do you think? Does he have a future on Wearside?

Sunderland will, I expect, be open to offers for Grigg.

I think the situation would have been a lot more easily resolved had they won promotion this time around, as it would not have added the extra complexity of potentially selling to a rival in League One.

All the same it’s probably best for all parties that a solution is found.

It’s not happened for Grigg here under three different managers and at MK Dons he seems to have an environment where he thrives.

The style of play there clearly suits him and they have been clear on multiple occasions that they want to sign him.

The question is whether they can afford him.

I think the situation is probably different now to recent windows, where you had a regime reluctant to sanction the loss of such a high-profile addition who still had a lot of time to run on a big contract.

With one year left and a new executive team starting afresh, it may be more palatable.

Can we get some confirmation that the manager will introduce more of our U23 players this season? He has spoken of them and bigged them up but not played them.

Do you expect LJ to be bold in giving some of those who played U23s last night significant 1st team game time next year at the expense of retaining those that haven’t delivered what was needed?

I think that’s a little harsh as Jack Diamond has seen his gametime rise considerably under Johnson, who has used him in pressurised moments, too.

Both Johnson and Speakman have said that Elliot Embleton will be a member of the first-team squad, so we should expect to see a lot more of him next season.

They have both also said that Josh Hawkes will get an opportunity in pre-season, with a detailed programme drawn up for his physical development over the summer.

There are then a couple of big calls to be made over Dan Neil and Anthony Patterson.

Both unquestionably have big first-team futures in the long run, but will need a well-targeted loan move if they are not to be part of the senior squad just yet.

Both have time on their side still.

With some of the U23s (such as players like Ellis Taylor and Patrick Almond), it is worth keeping in mind that they are playing above their age group.

It makes their performances all the more remarkable, but also just serves as a bit of a reminder that they are still early in their development.

While I get we will be currently focusing on player contracts, are there signs that Sunderland will have a more proactive approach to transfers this summer instead of waiting until the last possible minute?

As you say, contracts will be the foremost priority and that makes sense.

Sunderland’s business will in part be guided by whether they can reach an agreement with those players that they want to keep.

I’m hopeful though that, as you say, we will see the consequences of some proper planning this summer.

The last two summer windows have been defined by uncertainty and a comprehensive lack of leadership at executive level, given the question marks that stood over the ownership of the club.

With a Sporting Director and new head of recruitment in place, that will hopefully be different this time around.

It’s worth remembering that Stuart Harvey, for example, is moving pretty much from a standing start but the player profiles Sunderland want to recruit to are firmly in place and that should make things a lot easier.

Fingers crossed.

Johnson has said Sunderland will be defined by their summer recruitment and he is absolutely right.

With the SCMP at this level. Can KLD splash the cash on players and wages or is the hands tied and to what limit?

Salary Cost Management Protocol limits a club to spending 60% of their turnover.

Clearly this will be a consideration, particularly depending on how the next phase of the return (fingers crossed) to normality goes and what impact that has on stadium attendances etc.

It’s worth noting that these rules are far less restrictive than the salary cap introduced and then overturned last summer.

Owners can still inject funds into the club, as long as it is not in the form of loans that incur a debt on the club’s part.

More broadly, though, expect KLD to be very measured in his spending.

Johnson has already said that he expects to be operating on a slightly reduced playing budget. That is no surprise, really, given that the club still has some significant earners and a wage bill massive for the level (£14,504,000 for the 2019/20 season).

A reduction from that as currently contracted players leave should not mean a reduction in either ambition of expectation.

Sustainability is at the heart of KLD’s vision, as is promoting academy talent.

So don’t expect lavish spending on wages or fees.

The Ross Stewart deal in January, though, showed he will invest where the recruitment team feel there is future value and there I think we will see a significant difference from the Madrox era.

Why has there been no feedback from KLD following our exit from the play-offs?

I suspect it is because as it stands, the executive team has been in discussions over all the key decisions that have to be made.

Once they have done that, I would expect there to be some level of communication with fans through both supporter group meetings and probably through club channels.

Hopefully it will be clear and proactive.

For a figure with such significant responsibility, there has not been a major amount of dialogue from Kristjaan Speakman thus far,

That should change now the season is over and the club’s fate is settled.

KLD said some negative things about the last owners. Juan Sartori has been appointed to the board along with a lawyer who represented Madrox? Are we right to have concerns that it is not a fresh start after all?

I think the decisions made generally on the club’s operating structure show that KLD and his executive team have complete control over decision making.

It’s worth noting too that as well as Sartori’s appointment to the board, a number of close allies to KLD have also joined.

The club is in a far better position than it was 12 months ago but it is entirely right that at some stage KLD addresses why Sartori is on the board (and also to outline what his relationship with Simon Vumbaca is).

It does make sense that Madrox would like a representative on the board given they retain a stake, and it may well be that Sartori’s influence is absolutely minimal.

All the same, after such a fractured period in the club’s history, transparency on these matters is crucial.

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