Phil Smith's Sunderland AFC Q&A: Contract latest, transfer plans & the future of key youngsters under the microscope

Sunderland’s summer rebuild is continuing as the club prepare for what will be a crucial campaign.

Wednesday, 2nd June 2021, 12:00 pm

Phil Smith has been taking questions from readers on all the key matters at the club in his weekly Q&A.

You can read the questions, and Phil’s responses, below...

When do you expect a decision over the contract offers and what indications are there on who will stay?

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Charlie Wyke is in talks over his future at the club

Sunderland have said that they want resolutions as quickly as possible, and that’s clearly important as what happens with those four players will have a major impact on what transfer business they then need to do.

However, the decision now ultimately rests with the players themselves and you can understand why they will want to take time to assess their options.

Sunderland are hopeful that they can convince Charlie Wyke to stay, although as of the end of last week talks had not yet reached a stage where a formal offer had been tabled.

That is a reflection of the battle the club are facing, and in truth as the dust began to settle on the campaign the expectation was that Wyke would opt for a fresh start elsewhere.

The question is whether the significant interest from the Championship materialises and how attractive that then becomes for the striker. Ipswich Town are also known to be very interested and seem to be making a number of ambitious early moves in the market this summer.

Despite that, the expectation has been that if Wyke leaves, it will be for an offer from the second tier.

Luke O’Nien is another player who has interest from the Championship, and so has a big decision to make on what is best for the next stage of his career.

His enthusiasm for the club is well known, so Sunderland will hope that proves key in convincing him to stay.

Aiden McGeady is believed to be keen on extending his Sunderland stay, so that then becomes a case of reaching a mutually beneficial agreement with the club. The Black Cats want him to stay on as Lee Johnson sees him as a crucial player, but it has to reflect the desire for sustainability too.

As for Denver Hume, Sunderland will hope that after a frustrating campaign on the injury front the prospect of being first-choice left back next year will be key.

At the moment, it seems like Wyke and O’Nien are the two who could be the most difficult to retain but these things can change very quickly.

Do you get the impression the club want to get most deals done before pre season, or is it another summer of waiting to get championship clubs scrap players a few days before deadline day?

There’s definitely an appetite to get some business done as soon as possible.

Implementing the new playing style during pre-season is key and so the club will want a core of the squad in place for then.

I think the speed and decisiveness we saw with the retained list after the play-offs was a reflection of the planning that has been done for this next stage.

However, it’s always worth keeping in mind the scale of turnover likely this summer.

With twelve senior players currently under contract for next season, and a couple of those unlikely to feature in the first-team plans, I think it’s reasonable to expect some work to be done later in the summer as well.

Kristjaan Speakman has already spoken about how this could, for example, give some youngsters the chance to make an impression early in pre season.

It’s also definitely the case that the club do not want to rush into signing players, and risk them not fitting into the style they want to play next season.

Have the club now identified which players they would like to bring in?

There have been extensive meetings over the last couple of weeks with regards to recruitment.

One of the most important pieces of work going on behind the scenes over the last six months has been to build the profiles the club wants in each position.

That then allows you to narrow down your targets as you know exactly what you are looking for both in the data analysis and the more traditional scouring.

Sunderland are playing catch up, it is fair to say, given the lack of infrastructure in place under the old regime, but the arrival of Stuart Harvey has sharpened the process.

Speakman has been clear in saying that all of this is a work in progress, but I do think Sunderland are better placed then they have been in recent times given the stability off the pitch and the preparation that has been done.

There is a very clear direction in terms of what kind of players they want to recruit and in which positions.

Will the Euros have an impact on transfer business this summer? Or not at this level?

It shouldn’t have much impact on League One business.

Clearly any player involved is likely to want to focus on that tournament before securing their futures, but at the third-tier level there are very few players that affects and so I would expect the market to be busy long before the end of that tournament.

Will the streaming be available again this season for home games as previously it was only for away games and overseas fans?

It’s a really interesting question and clearly a lot will depend on when we can get stadiums back to full capacity.

At the moment it’s still too early to say whether we will see that in time for the start of the new campaign, though the EFL have said that they are planning towards that scenario.

Sunderland have invested heavily in their streaming set up and definitely see it as a big part of the future, but much of the decision making around that will be out of their hands.

Do you think Elliot Embleton will stay, or could Blackpool prise him away?

I think it’s going to be one of the most interesting storylines of the summer.

For Sunderland’s part, they have been absolutely unequivocal about Elliot returning to be a member of the first-team squad for next season.

Kristjaan Speakman and Lee Johnson both stated that on the record when Elliot first moved to Blackpool, and have reiterated it on multiple occasions since.

There is a commitment to developing academy talent and Elliot also brings the added bonus of being a really versatile player.

He’s proven at Blackpool that he can be trusted defensively to play out wide, while he can also play just about any central midfield role.

Blackpool would no doubt be keen to keep him. Neil Critchley has been an admirer since Embleton’s days in the England youth teams and he’s clearly made an impression there.

There’s no doubt that the prospect of Championship football would give him a decision to make.

Sunderland do have some protection, as Embleton has another year left on his current deal.

So if there is a will to keep him for next season, there is no reason why he should leave if the Black Cats can assure him that he is a big part of their plans for next season.

Will Jon McLaughlin be regretting leaving Sunderland given his lack of gametime at Rangers?

I don’t think he necessarily will.

He’s played a big part in their season given that Allan McGregor missed much of the early part of the campaign, and McLaughlin has therefore played in Europe and the early stages of the title win.

He would undoubtedly liked to have played more but the impression last summer was that it was a long-term move to eventually try and step into McGregor’s shoes at both club and international level.

I think it’s still too early to say he can’t achieve that.

Should Sunderland fans be worried that we could lose Josh Hawkes, given the speculation around his future?

I think it’s only natural that clubs would be lining up a move after such an impressive season, and equally Hawkes is at an age where everyone can see that he needs to be playing regular first-team football.

However, I wouldn’t be overly concerned at this stage.

Sunderland rate Hawkes and they have made clear that they want him to stay. Johnson believes a summer programme to boost his physicality will be key and that there will then be opportunities in pre-season.

What happens from there is impossible to judge, but there is definitely a determination to give him a chance to prove his worth at senior level.

Due to Juan Sartori's and KLD's previous relationships with the South American and European leagues, could we be seeing more players arriving from outside the UK market?

Neither Sartori nor Louis-Dreyfus would have any input in talent identification.

Louis-Dreyfus will of course have a say in budgetary matters and fees etc, but assessing and establishing targets is purely the remit of the recruitment team.

However, the shift to a more ‘evidence based’ or data-led approach absolutely means the club are looking to broaden their horizons over a period of time.

They will absolutely be assessing other leagues across the continent and beyond to try and find value.

Could you name the players you would target and what positions?

If Sunderland can’t bring Dion Sanderson back (hopefully they can, but he will surely have Championship opportunities), then they need another defender of his athleticism and quality.

I was immensely impressed with Dan Ballard at Blackpool (on loan from Arsenal) and I do think the loan market is an area where Sunderland need to do a lot better.

Sanderson is their only real success in the last four years and that has to change.

Hopefully having some off-field stability and a defined style of play will help them sell the club to the best young players who will potentially be looking for a platform next season.

Aside from that, some more athleticism in the full back areas is key and above all else (at least in my opinion), is the need for more creativity in midfield.

Sunderland are light in numbers in that key part of the pitch right now, and if they are to realise their vision for a more dynamic style then they need players comfortable driving forward in possession and brave in their decision making.

Though not the quickest, I’ve long admired Scott Fraser, currently of MK Dons and formerly of Burton Albion.

I highly doubt he’s available, but that’s the kind of midfielder I think Sunderland have too often lacked.

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