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A time for action from Sunderland’s custodians

The weekend of Easter 2024 saw Sunderland AFC win a game and lose a game. It was the weekend when any lingering sense of panic over our Championship status all but ended but it was also the weekend when anger and frustration over this season’s events bubbled over. It was the weekend when a sense of trepidation over the future took hold.
There have been plenty of words written and spoken over the last few days dealing with what has gone wrong this season and the reasons for that.
Most fans agree on these reasons, they are pretty clear and obvious. However, it is in the very nature of all football supporters to express their opinions in different ways and at different volumes. None of this creates a positive atmosphere for the club to move forward. Given that the problems have been self-inflicted this makes the current mess and everything that results from that all the more frustrating.
Last weekend was in effect a microcosm of the season as a whole. A good win and a bad defeat quickly following each other – the win hard won, the defeat all of our own making, it was all too easy for an average Blackburn side to humiliate us.
That seems to be where we are, the two contrasting performances a definition of this squad. A young squad missing too many of its best players through injury, weak in too many crucial areas, capable of good things and equally capable of calamitous performances like we saw on Monday. The youngest squad in our history and the youngest squad in this league will inevitably lack consistency. However, the lack leadership on and off the pitch is all too obvious and is there for all opposing coaches, teams and fans to see and to take advantage of.
The fact that this is a self-created problem is what hurts. It isn’t a problem that arose at 3pm on Saturday, it has been evident all season and has been rooted from the breakdown in relations between those at the top of the club and the Head Coach at the end of last season and decisions over recruitment last summer and in January.
This week has also seen the departure of the top non-footballing executive at the club - Steve Davison. Whatever your thoughts on his time here – there have been plenty of nice words written by those who actually knew him and plenty of negatives written by those who didn’t – his departure leaves a hole at the top of the club. This at a time when raising new revenue streams is crucial to our short, medium- and long-term future. Another gap in leadership has been created when leaders at the club are hard to find.
All of this means that the period from this Easter weekend to the start of next season is huge for the club – there are so many crucial appointments to make, so many crucial decisions to get right.
We are told that conversations have started in that process to appoint a new Head Coach. It is vital that this position and an experienced number two are appointed as soon as the season ends. It is also vital that the future roles of Mike Dodds and Michael Proctor are settled at the same time. Whether they stay with the club or not we must have a settled first team coaching set up - which is fit for the purpose of developing players - in place at this season’s end or immediately thereafter. This set up needs to be ready to plan pre-season and be ready to work with the squad well before they report back and transfer targets finalised, there can be no delays.
What that squad will look like is anyone’s guess. There are huge question marks over the futures of our better players. One thing that the club has done very well is to secure that group onto long contracts. That gives us some power, it also means that our bargaining will be hard – as it should be.
It then follows that any potential sales will be at the end of the window not at the beginning. Given the financial weakness of those potential buyers - at the lower end of the Premier League - then will we have to adjust our expectations over fees? What might this do to our own plans on any potential incomings? If sales are made in the last week of August or on the last day, will we be able to sensibly reinvest that money? It's going to be a heck of a challenge.
It is not only our better players whose futures are in doubt. There is a raft of players who have arrived over the last four windows who haven’t yet contributed. Their time to adapt and develop into upper end Championship level players is running out. Decisions will need to be made by the club and by these players on their futures.
Given the financial constraints which are on all clubs now any spaces in the squad that are freed up by the younger players moving in will likely be filled by more young players. That is fine as long as they are better than what is coming through our own academy.
However, the evidence that we have seen so far on such recruits suggests that promoting from our own groups will be just as fruitful as gambling on young players from the continent of beyond. The experiment of mass recruits - for money - from overseas - needs to be curtailed with more emphasis placed on our own young players' development. They are just as good. Surely that will allow more funding for the odd first team starter?
The biggest topic of conversation at the moment is whether – this summer - we will recruit the proven quality players to go straight into the first team. Since promotion Dan Ballard and to a lesser extent Jobe Bellingham and Pierre Ekwah are the only players who we have recruited who have established themselves as first choice – that is three players over 4 windows.
If we are to recruit more first team ready players then we will need to adjust our wage structure upwards. Our 2023 accounts are not yet out but they are likely to show a healthy wage to turnover ratio, better than most in the league. That should be celebrated and in many respects justifies the recruitment policy which we all moan about! The future of the club is safe, that wasn’t the case a short few years ago. However, we know how quickly things can change if improvements aren’t made, so we should use the last couple of years as an opportunity to move forward. Most clubs in this division and several in the league above are living way beyond their means, we haven’t been. For once can we be the opportunist in what might be a favourable market? We can only hope that we are savvy enough to take advantage of the misfortune of others for a change.
We have plenty of good players, there is plenty of talent in the squad but we have left ourselves with too many positions to fill, too many questions to answer. The pressure on the decision makers to get things right this summer is huge as the results of those decisions will not only define our chances of success next season but for several seasons after, this summer feels like a seminal moment for the club.
Momentum and goodwill is hard to win and easy to lose, the club are on a short timetable to salvage what they have lost this season. As a fanbase we remain battered and bruised from the last ten years which have been frankly grim, our support is as loyal as any, but after the last ten years scepticism trumps optimism every time.
A year ago, the team had upwards momentum and the owners had the goodwill of the fans. This has been lost and it can be recovered, but to do so the club have to act, and to act quickly and decisively to put right the wrongs of this season.

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