The complex contract picture at Sunderland explained and the key factors that will come into play

Fighting for their futures, or minds already wandering elsewhere?

Tuesday, 4th May 2021, 12:30 pm
Updated Tuesday, 4th May 2021, 12:31 pm

As Sunderland's top-two hopes faded amid a seven-game winless run, the impact of the squad's contractual situation was keenly debated.

Head coach Lee Johnson admitted last Wednesday that he felt one or two may have been affected by the fact that their futures were uncertain, but was equally clear that it should be no reason for poor performance.

After all, logic dictates that finishing the season strongly will boost any player's prospects, whether it be on Wearside or elsewhere.

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Sunderland Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman

With this squad there is another factor to consider, too.

When Alim Ozturk spoke to The Echo after being released last summer, what was clear was a bitter frustration at leaving before the job was done. Many of this group have been part of this League One journey for at least one campaign and there will without a doubt be an understanding that their legacy here will be defined by whether they can get over the line.

There will also surely be an awareness that given an extensive rebuild has been widely trailed by the new regime, changes are as likely if Sunderland fall short as they are if they go up.

Whichever way you look at it, the best solution for all of the players in question is to prove they are worthy of a Championship contract.

Perhaps, too, Saturday's strong win at Plymouth underlined that the winless run was far less a story about application, and more about the way that confidence can quickly ebb away.

When assessing the contract picture, it's also worth remembering that the picture is an all likelihood a lot more complicated than it immediately appears.

As it stands, there are 11 players whose contract expires this summer: Lee Burge, Remi Matthews, Conor McLaughlin, Luke O'Nien, Denver Hume, Max Power, Josh Scowen, Grant Leadbitter, Chris Maguire, Aiden McGeady, Charlie Wyke.

Within that group, though, it's worth remembering that for the most part it was standard policy during the Stewart Donald era to include the option of a year-long extension, especially in the case of two-year deals.

Occasionally that was in the player's favour, but mostly it was in the club's.

There were of course high profile exceptions to this, Jon McLaughlin’s free transfer to Rangers the most obvious.

The examples where the club were better protected are nevertheless numerous.

Through much of the second half of last season, there was understandably significant concern that both Chris Maguire and Luke O'Nien were heading into the last months of their deal with seemingly little sign of action.

As The Echo reported, in both cases the lack of concern was down to senior figures knowing that that they had the option to trigger an extension.

That duly happened when the club released its retained list at the end of the season.

The policy continued the next summer and we have seen that in action over recent weeks, too.

When Sunderland sanctioned a loan to Blackpool for Elliot Embleton, they made public immediately that they had taken up the option of extension in his initial two-year deal.

Jordan Willis is another example. When Willis first suffered a serious knee injury in February, Johnson confirmed that it was intention to keep the 26-year-old beyond this summer.

His response also clearly suggested that he did not foresee any issues in making that happen.

This was again due to the terms of his deal, which allowed Sunderland to trigger another year. When Willis suffered a recent setback, the Black Cats did exactly that to demonstrate their commitment to aiding his recovery.

From those out of contract this summer, Denver Hume, Lee Burge and Conor McLaughlin are all coming towards the end of initial two-year deals. Though signed in different circumstances, the same is also effectively true of Grant Leadbitter and Aiden McGeady.

22 and ever improving, Hume is the asset where you sincerely hope Sunderland have security and proper forward planning.

In some circumstances Sunderland are clearly vulnerable.

Wyke's contract is set to expire and with interest from clubs in the Championship inevitable, the Black Cats could find themselves fighting a losing battle if they do not secure promotion.

To add another caveat to the mix, The Sun reported on Sunday that promotion would trigger an automatic extension and a pay rise in Matthews’ deal. That makes sense, when you consider that in the week leading up to his arrival, Sunderland feared that salary cap restrictions made it likely Matthews would instead opt to move to the Championship.

Whether promotion has an impact on any other player’s situation is also largely unknown.

So it is a complex picture, and that is not aided by the relative quiet behind the scenes.

Understandably, Johnson has pushed questions on the matter largely to the side in his press conferences, stressing that responsibility on this front falls squarely with Sporting Director Krisjtaan Speakman.

Speakman has improved transparency in some areas, excellent in immediately explaining decisions in club statements (Embleton's surprise loan being a perfect example).

He is yet to conduct any external media interviews, however, and that has created a vacuum when it comes to the contract issue.

Speakman, of course, did address the matter on the club's podcast in February and what has happened since adds up with what he outlined then.

Where possible he said the club would move and Jack Diamond was a rare example of a player who fits the project on financial and footballing grounds in either division.

Speakman made equally clear that for some, the budget would be key and only when Sunderland's fate was known could calls be made.

He also made clear that for many, the onus was on them to prove there was a place for them in Johnson's high-pressing future.

Changes are undoubtedly coming for Sunderland, but it is perhaps not quite as straightforward as first appears.

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