Next Sunderland manager: The major issues being raised about club's direction and why fans deserve better

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Sunderland’s search for a new head coach appears no closer to a resolution after yet another week

To even be writing about a Sunderland head coach search still having no resolution feels scarcely credible.

It is now a week since Kyril Louis-Dreyfus finally broke the silence that had enveloped Wearside since the season began to drift away in painful fashion, acknowledging the length of the wait and saying that the process was in its final stages. A decision was said to be imminent. He did say hopefully, but even so, this was surely a sign that we were finally nearing the end of the road. As it stands Frank Lampard is the overwhelming favourite with the bookmakers, though this a source of some bemusement to sources with knowledge of the race who say there is nothing to it at this stage. This in itself still tells a larger and more troubling story, a search that seems to drift and go round in circles even on its 116th day. 

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Sunderland will appoint a new head coach at some point, and yet the problem now is the protracted nature of the search and the seemingly multiple setbacks within it will cast a long shadow even as the new boss gets to work and thoughts turn to the next campaign. Nearly six weeks since the end of the campaign, we can now say with some degree of certainty that either Sunderland’s succession planning is nowhere near as good as it ought and is claimed to be, or that the vacancy is not as attractive as it ought to be. Or both.

Sunderland have, as you would expect, been fairly ambitious in who they have targeted but getting a deal over the line has been another matter. There may be some mitigation in that they have at times been competing with top-tier clubs who can offer European football, or clubs bolstered by parachute payments who can offer the tangible prospect of Premier League football in the very near future. Even so, this is the club that regularly boasts the biggest attendance in the division and even after finishing 16th last time around has already sold in excess of 30,000 season cards. At different times, both Mike Dodds and Michael Beale spoke of how even if there was a lot of noise and at times doubt on Wearside, the outside perception of Sunderland was of a vibrant young team on the rise. That is increasingly hard to square with the current impasse. 

Sunderland’s move away from the role of ‘manager’ to ‘head coach’ reflects a broader trend right across football and it’s not one in principle that many supporters object to. It’s not so long ago that the Black Cats were suffering back-to-back relegations and the financial strain of the squad churn that came from lurching from manager to manager was one of the fundamental reasons for the demise. Sunderland’s particular role is a particularly limited one, however, with the vast majority of the backroom staff already in place and seemingly not up for negotiation. The input in recruitment is again fairly limited and after multiple transfer windows have passed without some key issues in the side being addressed, there are obvious question marks over the flexibility in budget and strategy being in place to allow Sunderland to compete with the clubs around them. Beale arrived raving about the model and structure in place but for the most part looked badly isolated and uncomfortable, and left aiming none-too-subtle digs at not being backed in the January window. There were strong echoes in that of comments made by both of his predecessors in Tony Mowbray and Alex Neil.

While there were undoubtedly some reservations (in some cases major ones) about decisions made both on and off the pitch over the previous 18 months or so, Sunderland arrived at the midway point of last season in a relatively settled place and with some cautious grounds for optimism. The hierarchy made a hugely contentious decision then to part ways with Mowbray and though it would be wrong to say that this was a call universally condemned, it is surely beyond debate to say that what has followed since has been nothing short of a shambles. The FA Cup debacle, the Beale tenure, the wretched end to the season in which Sunderland went from one of the best teams at the level to watch to one of most insipid. That dismal spell of purgatory was meant to be made worthwhile by the appointment of a progressive, ambitious appointment who could immediately raise hope of better days on the horizon. If that does not happen, then it will leave the credibility and the reputation of the club hierarchy in tatters in the eyes of many. So protracted has this search been, many are already beginning to feel that way. 

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Louis-Dreyfus’ statement last week offered, at last, some brief acknowledgement that the club had fallen short last season but there has still been no real accountability for what was a sequence of calamitous decisions. Most worryingly, the ongoing delay raises very real fears that some key lessons have not been learned. Dodds said towards the end of the campaign that actions would speak louder than words when it came to Sunderland’s intentions and ambition to bounce back this summer. Few would have imagined then that we would get to midway through June without either. Sunderland’s supporters deserve better but yet another week passes without a meaningful step forward. 

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