Recruitment, academy and director of football plans: Assessing the big decisions facing Stewart Donald and Sunderland AFC

The fallout continues from Sunderland’s dire start to their League One promotion campaign, with Phil Parkinson and the players under-fire with focus also on off field matters.

Saturday, 30th November 2019, 11:45 am

Sunderland, who have a free weekend after being knocked out of the FA Cup, find themselves 11th in League One with hopes of automatic promotion fading by the week.

Tuesday night’s dismal defeat at home to Burton has seen the Black Cats reach crisis point on the pitch with some big issues to tackle off the pitch too.

Our Sunderland writers Richard Mennear and Mark Donnelly cast their eye over some of them here:

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Charlie Methven and Stewart Donald.

Do Sunderland need a director of football?

RM: Whatever the title is - director of football, technical director, sporting director - there needs to be a stronger link at Sunderland between the boardroom and manager.

A more day-to-day presence at a senior level and one leading the strategy and vision on the football side.

Having been relegated twice in successive seasons and finding themselves at the lowest point in the club’s history, there was always going to be a scaling back, cloth had to be cut.

Although performances have been well below standard, hence why Jack Ross was sacked and Phil Parkinson is now already under intense pressure just six weeks in, there is a recognition now that an improved structure needs to be implemented.

The club’s senior management structure is being assessed and the appointment of a director of football-type figure would be a key one, in this writers’ opinion.

Sunderland have long had a reputation for regular managerial change but with that comes all the associated costs, backroom staff changes and changes on the playing front. It’s partly why they are in the mess they are in.

It is a costly business sacking managers given all the other changes that need to be made, at least if there was a vision and strategy in place for how the club wants to play and develop players then you wouldn’t need the constant change of new players to adapt to the new manager’s preferred style either.

MD: It's certainly an argument with some relevance to it, with the Director of Football role becoming more common-place in the Englsh game in recent years.

One of Sunderland's main flaws in recent years has been the lurches in style when managerial changes have been made - which has been far too often for everyone's liking.

When a new manager comes in with new ideas of how he wants the side to play, existing players are then turfed out with new ones brought in; his successor then may wish to make even more changes and the cycle continues.

A director of football would help stop this, providing they are given an appropriate remit. If Sunderland were to appoint someone's who role was solely focused on establishing a consistent style of play and model for player recruitment, then it could well prove to be a masterstroke.

There are natural setbacks, though. Some managers are reluctant to work under such a structure and who would be experienced enough to tackle such a role would have to be questioned.

But given Sunderland's current situation, it's an appointment worth considering.

Do Sunderland need to improve their recruitment strategy?

RM: Clearly, with the club 11th in League One and having failed to show any signs they are capable of an automatic promotion push, something isn’t quite right.

Yes, there have been success stories since the new owners came in; Jon McLaughlin (last season), Luke O’Nien, George Dobson and Jordan Willis.

But aside from that quartet the jury remains very much out on the other signings, the likes of Charlie Wke, Joel Lynch, Max Power, Conor McLaughlin, not to mention Will Grigg who has been a major disappointment and Chris Maguire’s whose form has tailed off alarmingly too.

Sunderland’s strategy in the transfer market has been unclear, with a mix of young players who have potential and re-sale value and then older, more experienced signings on either a free or on loan.

It has been a mixed bag and that has resulted in a wildly inconsistent campaign and one which has unravelled in recent weeks.

The constant takeover speculation in the summer paralysed the club on the transfer front, they then had to make signings from an almost standing start, bar one or two targets that had been longer term targets.

And the failings of last season’s squad were not resolved, the lack of width, athleticism, pace, creativity in the final third and goals.

Speaking to the Echo earlier this month, Charlie Methven defended the role of Richard Hill and Tony Coton, the head of recruitment, adding: “I’d ask that people judge the results of Richard and Tony’s work over a 3 year period, not making them take the blame for a structure that simply had to go.

“There’ve been a lot of discussions [behind the scenes] about the types of places and players that Sunderland need to attract.

“The structure of the new recruitment set up will reflect that.

“I believe that we’re right but only time will tell on the pitch.”

Fans will hope at the end of that three-year period Sunderland are back in the Championship but major improvements are needed for that to become a reality.

MD: Without a doubt.

But let's be clear - Sunderland's current recruitment team have signed some exceptional players. Luke O'Nien, George Dobson and Max Power have proved good additions.

Even Will Grigg was a logical signing at the time, given his record in League One and where Sunderland found themselves at the time he signed.

But the overarching question is - what is Sunderland's recruitment model? Are they looking to sign up-and-coming players in the mould of O'Nien and Dobson, with potential resale value? Or are they eyeing more experienced heads such as Joel Lynch and Laurens De Bock?

A blend of both in the squad is no bad thing, of course, but some clarity on how Sunderland are recruiting and the type of player they are seeking would be appreciated.

How vital is the Academy to Sunderland's future success?

RM: Incredibly. And it will only become more vital too, it is imperative it retains a Category One status and that Sunderland continue to produce players for their own first team.

The money from FPP Sunderland will hopefully help on that front, with the academy earmarked as one area for fresh investment.

Sunderland have a proud record in recent years, the likes of Jordan Henderson, Jordan Pickford, George Honeyman, Denver Hume to name a few. More are needed.

MD: It's hard to summarise just how important the academy is to the future of the club.

Fans may have grown tired of the words 'Category One' in recent months, but ensuring that the academy maintains its elite status is paramount.

If Sunderland want to continue developing the best players in the region - and to have scope to ensure they can bring in talented youngsters from overseas - that Category One status is vital.

While supporters are perhaps frustrated that the fresh investment in the club from FPP Sunderland isn't all being channeled into strengthening the first-team, for the long-term future of the football club it is vital that the academy receives the financial support it needs.

What can be improved regarding the structure of the club?

RM: Jack Ross had long lobbied for changes and improvement to the structure of the club, particularly on the football side.

The Scot was sacked prior to the news that investment in the form of a loan had been secured from FPP Sunderland, with that money earmarked for improvements on the recruitment and academy side and the infrastructure.

Speaking after his departure, Ross said: “I had a desire to put a more structured plan in place, more than just the budget.

“The club has come out recently and said they will invest in recruitment, and I had all the conversations and we never managed to get there. For the club to move, it needs to do that.”

The club is currently without a managing director after Tony Davison’s departure, that role key in terms of improving revenue streams - all the more important now the club cannot rely on the bumper TV deal of the Premier League years.

And the aforementioned director of football role too, two key roles that Sunderland must look to fill if the club is to achieve its potential - on and off the pitch.

MD: There are plenty of improvements that could be made to Sunderland's structure, particularly at board level.

The departure of Tony Davison has left the club without a Managing DIrector. While Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven both take a hands-on role in running the club, their other business interests mean they are often pulled from Wearside.

A regular 'man on the ground' would therefore be a smart appointment; someone to ensure the business runs smoothly while improving revenue streams - as was Davison's remit.