Relegation and the bitter financial realities that followed have seen Sunderland follow something of a ‘back to basics’ approach behind the scenes.
In recruitment, the focus very much became the British market, targeting players who were available on financially beneficial deals but also ones who would understand and appreciate the club and its fanbase.
Martin Bain’s managerial targets reflected that, with Simon Grayson arriving and talking instantly of ‘players who want to be here’. He teamed up with his chief scout from Preston, Ian Miller, where the pair had great success bringing in players from the lower leagues across the British Isles.
Bain sees that targeting of athletic, hard working players as a template for years to come, and a big part of the responsibility for delivering that has been passed to new academy director Jimmy Sinclair, who oversees youth development at the club but also chairs the internal technical board responsible for, among other things, scouting.
Sinclair, who has been in the post since the departure of long-serving boss Ged McNamee, explained the plethora of changes happening at the Academy of Light.
“When you have that change of manager and change of regime, it leads to uncertainty and not having a development plan as such,” he told the Echo in an in-depth interview.
“What we’ve tried to do is to do put together a recruitment department that will focus [at youth level] much more locally now on the talent that we have in the North East.
“The idea of that is to ensure stability – and I hope that the current manager is successful and stays here for a long time and I’m sure he will – but regardless of that, having an understanding in the recruitment sense of the type of player we want to bring to the club in the long-term.
“The kind of player the fans will appreciate and want to see.
“From what I’ve seen, the fans are rightly demanding, and they’re right to demand that effort. They love a tackle, great skill as well yes, but they value endeavour to a great degree and it is up to us to produce players of that ilk.
“The mission is fairly clear, and recruitment is one part of that.
“We’ve promoted Neil McDermott from within [from head of academy recruitment to club recruitment officer], who will be the focal point for the whole department, from the first team right down to the young ones. We’ve been given latitude to appoint another scout, who will work from the 16/17-23 age department, which can be a black hole in recruitment terms.
“Putting Neale at the head of this means the recognition of what a Sunderland should be goes right from the bottom to top, and the staff will have a knowledge of what that is. I think that will also help us to bring the age profile of the U23s down, so that these players can come into the group and then go out on loan, as Jordan Pickford did.”
Sinclair is keen to talk up Pickford’s progression as a sign that many good things are happening in the academy, lauding the mentality of the club’s young teams and the fabled ‘black boot policy’, which prevents any players in the U18 side or below from wearing coloured boots.
Sinclair is also keen to stress the importance of the club maintaining its category 1 academy status, ensuring that the Black Cats remain one of the elite youth set-ups in the country.
Part of the task assigned to him has been to make the club more ‘cohesive’, in recruitment certainly but also in sports science, medicine and others. That focus goes right down to the youngest players coming in to the club, doubling down on scouting networks in the North East region.
He is hoping to introduce an identifiable brand of football throughout the youth system, with the focus on athletic and committed players crucial.
To that end, the club have recently appointed Mark McCormick as ‘head of coaching’. McCormick, who has coached across the globe after a playing career in Scotland, will be responsible for overseeing the individual development of coaches in the academy set-up.
The changes are for the long-term but Sinclair is also aware that given the club’s situation, there is a responsibility to recruit players who can challenge for the first team in a relatively short space of time, following in the footsteps of the likes of Duncan Watmore, Josh Maja and Joel Asoro.
Sinclair said: “We’re trying to be aggressive in making sure we get the best local talent, we see our focus as being much closer to home but like any club, if a good opportunity, a good player, falls into your lap, you take it.
“We want to make sure that we are getting as many in from our own doorstep but its also our responsibility to make sure the best players available come in.
“There are a lot of young players at other academies who might not make the cut for them but might for us.
“There needs to be a two-pronged attack in the sense that there are kids we will recruit who are for the long-term, but I suspect because of the club’s situation there will need to be a focus on 17/18/19 year-old players who should in a fairly short space of time be ready to challenge to be a part of the manager’s group. “
Change continues at a rapid pace after a turbulent spell for Sunderland, as the search for stability and success continues.
The plan is clear, but the results will define whether the Black Cats, from the first team right to the bottom, can recover.