The short and long-term priorities for Kristjaan Speakman as Sunderland's new Sporting Director gets to work

It would not have taken long for Kristjaan Speakman to realise that life is rarely dull on Wearside.

Tuesday, 22nd December 2020, 4:45 pm

The Sporting Director had barely been in post a fortnight when an outbreak of COVID-19 forced the postponement of three fixtures and the temporary closure of the Academy of Light.

The enforced absence, though, will have allowed Speakman and head coach Lee Johnson a rare chance to take stock and reflect on the immense challenges ahead.

Here, we look at some of the key priorities for Speakman in the short to long term...

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Sunderland Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman

RECRUITMENT

January

In the long run, Speakman will be tasked with modernising the club's recruitment department so that there is a structure in place that consistently identifies talent with value who can seamlessly slot into the footballing philosophy at the club.

In short, the idea will be to create a recruitment model that can bring stability and success even if the head coach changes. It's key to building a sustainable financial model.

Speakman, though, has already stressed that no player will arrive without the explicit approval of Johnson.

There is also a shorter-term picture that will guide what will be a crucial January window.

With the aforementioned structure nowhere near strong enough at the moment, Johnson will have a stronger role in identifying what Speakman describes as the 'profiles' of the players he needs.

First and foremost, the pair need to establish exactly what room they still have in terms of the salary cap introduced this summer.

The Black Cats have one space left in their squad under the current rules, and so Johnson has already hinted that he could look to the loan market. Players under the age of 21, remember, do not count towards either the wage or squad size cap.

Johnson has strong connections with Premier League academies from his time at Bristol City and it will be up to Speakman to support him in making the one or two additions he needs.

Johnson is happy with the quality of his squad but feels it needs a little more variety and one or two new 'attributes'.

Pace is top of that list, and it's crucial Sunderland get it right.

This may well be a long-term project, but the Black Cats can't afford to lose another season to mediocrity.

& beyond

Failings in recruitment since relegation to League One (and in truth well beyond that) were part of the reason why Speakman has been appointed.

In the long run, the idea is that Sunderland will have a department that can generate transfer targets due to a robust scouting network and a modern analytics

A combination of those two can help identify players who can fit in with the playing philosophy and strengthen the pool of targets for the head coach (who will always have preferred options of his own).

Here, Speakman has an immense amount of work to do.

Tony Coton and Richard Hill left the club in the summer amid some level of disagreement of the new approach, and criticism of the business that had gone before.

The arrival of Arbenit Xhemajli signalled a shift in approach but the infrastructure remains minimal.

Speakman's work there will begin with the appointment of a new head of recruitment, who will lead the revamped department.

This is a key role as Speakman has already identified that his main strength is in player development, and the academy will be a huge focus of his in the months ahead.

There will then need to be key appointments to support the head of player recruitment in his work.

This will require good decisions from Speakman, but more importantly, commitment and investment from the ownership.

That also applies to the support network around Johnson.

The head coach has been clear that he needs cash to succeed, but stressed that it's not about transfer fees.

It can mean anything from bolstering his analysis department, to key technology on the training ground.

The operation at Sunderland is well behind what Johnson had at Bristol City and Speakman needs to be a key ally in lifting those standards.

CONTRACTS

Contract management has been poor at Sunderland in recent years, leading to the deeply disappointing departures of Josh Maja and Jon McLaughlin.

On this front, a major challenge awaits Speakman.

The vast majority of the current squad are out of contract this summer, from established senior players to the youngsters knocking on the door for more minutes.

Part of this is understandable, given the financial uncertainty all clubs are facing right now, the salary cap rules introduced last summer and the fact that Sunderland could be playing in a different league next summer.

There is a core, though, who would surely be central to Johnson's plans either way (Willis, Hume & O'Nien to name three).

Uncertainty over the ownership of the club has allowed this can to be kicked down the road but Sunderland need a strategy and quickly, or they will find themselves vulnerable to smart and better prepared clubs who will sense opportunity.

ACADEMY

Key appointments

Sunderland held interviews for the Academy Manager role after Paul Reid's departure, but did not make an immediate appointment as the preferred choice of the interviewing panel at the time (Jim Rodwell, Angela Lowes and Phil Parkinson) opted against taking the role.

This will now fall under Speakman's remit and is a good early opportunity for him to bring in someone aligned with his strategy.

The Black Cats also need new management staff for the U18 side. While the U23s have improved this season, the U18s have continued to struggle as a result of the talent drain under Madrox.

They secured a morale-boosting win recently, but more work needs to be done.

& beyond

Speakman has been absolutely clear that player development is both his strength and the main reason why it is he who has been appointed the Sporting Director role, rather than someone whose primary background is recruitment.

A vital starting point is establishing why so many young players opted to move elsewhere, and why so many were left feeling that the club were indifferent to that.

Establishing strong relationships on Wearside is key, with Speakman confirming that he will be based permanently in the region.

Speakman wants to ensure there is a comprehensive development programme for the club's best young talent, convincing them that there is a pathway to the first team if they stay.

Speakman, again, will need strong support from the ownership on this front, but his work will also require him to convince players and parents of his work.

It was encouraging that one of his first moves in the role was to hold a zoom with parents of players, to assure them of the importance of the academy to the club going forward.

COMMUNICATION

Speakman has already stressed that explaining his work and his vision to supporters is going to be critical.

The new Sporting Director has spoken eloquently on his appearances across club channels but there is clearly much to be done in convincing a fanbase that is rightly sceptical of developments at a club that has so underachieved of late.

Here lies the issue, and the question that underpins all of the above.

At the moment the uncertainty over the proposed takeover of the club makes it difficult for Speakman, or anyone else for that matter, to get on the front foot and sell the 'vision' for the years ahead.

It's only if and when that change occurs that Speakman will be able to be more pro-active in this regard, and indeed it's only when this change occurs that you expect he will be able to fully progress with all the challenges outlined above.

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