This is what's happening behind the scenes at Sunderland AFC as attentions turn to Championship campaign

Wearside is still basking in the collective glow of a glorious weekend at Wembley but behind the scenes that is balanced against the need to quickly look ahead.

By Phil Smith
Tuesday, 24th May 2022, 10:34 am

Sunderland’s new campaign starts just over two months and there is much to sort as the Black Cats look to build a competitive group to take on the second tier.

Here, we run where the key players are at right now and some of the key decisions being made..

ALEX NEIL

Sunderland boss Alex Neil

In the aftermath of Sunderland’s win, Alex Neil made clear that he saw his long-term future at the club.

“I know I've only been here a short period of time but the bond, see when you create a moment in time like we've been able to do today, that will never dissipate,” he said.

It did, however, also come with something of a warning.

Neil made clear that it is a big step up from League One to the Championship and that he would need to speak to the hierarchy to ensure everyone was aligned and that he could be comfortable there was the opportunity to be competitive next season. Those talks, he did admit, would take place once his hangover had faded.

Having focused almost entirely on the short-term since taking charge in February, there had been little opportunity for him to hold extensive talks on the future with Kristjaan Speakman.

That is now changing. Neil has been at the Academy of Light to finalise immediate decisions on players, and to put the final touches to Sunderland’s pre-season campaign. The Championship campaign starts a week earlier due to the winter break for the World Cup in Qatar, and so time is of the essence before players and staff go on their summer break.

Talks are also beginning on what next season might look like, with Speakman and the recruitment team under Stuart Harvey presenting their work so far. They had plans in place for both League One and the second tier, and can now press on with the latter.

Sources at Sunderland have stressed in the past that they were relaxed about Neil’s short-term contract, and they continue to be confident that he will be in charge next season particularly now that promotion has been achieved. That is certainly where his attentions are currently focused.

PLAYER’S FUTURES

Sunderland’s play-off participation means that they get an extended deadline on submitting their retained list to the EFL, which is now believed to be Wednesday.

Decisions have been made on the players out of contract and those in question have been reporting to the Academy of Light for talks on what those decisions are and what comes next. Lee Burge, Jordan Willis, Bailey Wright, Arbenit Xhemajli, Lynden Gooch, Aiden McGeady and Patrick Roberts are the players in question.

The retained list is set to be released publicly later this week, and will also offer clarity on the club’s five loanees from the campaign.

Leon Dajaku and Thorben Hoffmann both signed with options to purchase at the end of the season, depending on certain clauses being met. The list is likely to confirm whether or not that is the case at this stage, or whether talks are likely to go on further into the summer.

Decisions have also been made on the next steps in the upper age groups of the academy, and clarity on that is also expected in the near future.

BUDGET & OWNERSHIP

As with transfers and player decisions, the bulk of what the budgets would look like for next season had been planned for both scenarios.

The fine detail is now being settled for a Championship campaign, from which Speakman, Harvey and Neil can then begin summer business.

What is not yet clear is how the club’s ownership situation will develop over the course of the summer and perhaps beyond.

Kyril Louis-Dreyfus wants to purchase Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven’s remaining shares in the club, and though they have said they will sell there has clearly at this stage not been an agreement on valuation.

How this develops is important for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost their involvement even from a distance remains a sore point given the acrimony of their initial tenure, and a resolution would represent a step forward probably as unifying as the Wembley win.

The second is a matter of practicalities, with budgetary decisions and investment clearly requiring agreement and sign-off from all shareholders.

Perhaps as Sunderland initially transition to the Championship this is a more straightforward process, but clearly it becomes more complicated if, as should be the case, they look to grow and become more and more ambitious in the following years.

In a pre-Wembley interview with The Athletic, non-executive director David Jones outlined perfectly why this remains an important issue in the medium to long term.

“Am I comfortable with it [ownership structure]? No,” says Jones. “Are we getting to where we want to be despite it? Probably, yes. Because of it? No.

“Would it be easier for us if there was one clear voice of ownership? Absolutely yes. The quicker it can be resolved, the better for everyone.

“I have no knowledge or influence in how it can work itself out, but I’m really hopeful we can get some clarity on that this summer.

“It’s important for the football club’s future that we get clarity as soon as we possibly can. We’ve heard Stewart and Charlie say they’re ready to sell their shares and they’ll sell their part of Sunderland — we can only take them at their word.”

Jones speaks there for many on an issue that remains key to the long-term project.