The Missing Link

After a week of deciding that everything was dreadful and we’d be better off if the pit shafts just took the entire Stadium, I decided it was time to move on. Time to work out where the problems actually lie and what can be done about them.

Luckily twitter was able to answer all my questions. We’ve the worst squad in the history of football, our manager and back room staff are clueless and our owners are the worst since, well, ever. Thing is, I’m just not convinced that’s right.

In many ways I feel like we’re moving in the right direction. No matter what happened with the investment/takeover process, we know that the business side of the club is sound - a detailed review of the finances and business position didn’t find a problem. So, on the business side of things, I think we’re getting there. The problem is (and I appreciate it’s quite a serious problem for a football club) the football side of the club is a mess. Actually, some of it is actually OK. At all junior levels, the academy has had a great year and Paul Reid has settled into the role.

But this isn’t an article saying nothing is wrong. It’s an article saying let’s focus on what is wrong and find a way of solving the problems we find. And I don’t think the problem lies with anyone at the club. I think it lies with the fact someone is missing.

A year ago, I wrote an article saying that Jack Ross needed help from an experienced, older ‘football person’. He needed someone who could help him with the day to day burden of managing a football club the size of Sunderland. Someone who could help plan for the medium term while the manager got on with Saturday, someone available for a five minute chat when he came across a problem and wanted a second opinion, someone to deal with the physios, the scouts, the data analysts, the coaches at other levels. Of course, that didn’t happen, Ross moved on, and Parkinson arrived, but the role remained unfilled.

Parkinson was not my choice to take the hot seat, but I can understand why he was chosen. Having successfully led Bolton, Colchester and Bradford to promotion and having recent experience in this division with Bolton, there was a logic to his appointment. But what has he walked in to? Were the players fit? Was there a well-established recruitment set up? Was all coaching focused on an agreed plan and strategy across all teams? Were scouts watching teams we had to play and preparing reports? Quite simply, no, because it was no one’s job.

In previous articles I’ve laid some of the blame on the desks of Tony Coton and Richard Hill. Hill was challenged to get rid of the more expensive players, especially the ones who were refusing to play. It would appear he’s achieved that. Coton was asked to find almost an entire squad of players, ideally in about a week and a half. He did it and, to be fair, that squad came close to promotion and a cup win.

But what style are we hoping to build in the club over the next 5 to 10 years? We shouldn’t base it on the current manager exclusively because managers come and go. One of the reasons there were so many expensive players to get rid of was because of the constant replacement of squads for each and every manager. Who makes that overall strategy decision? Currently, no one.

Hill is in charge of contracts and negotiations. Fine. Any businessperson will tell you that you need a good person on contracts to get the best deals for the business. They just need to know what they’re trying to achieve. Which players must we keep at any cost and which would we be happy to let go if they argue? That’s a decision which, in any business, has to be taken by a central figure with an understanding or the operational, strategic and tactical goals of the business. And that person at Sunderland is… missing.

There are no clubs in the top two divisions in England without data analysts. It’s the way it’s done these days. Even old school managers want to know their key performance indicators to help mould training, targets and expectations. But they aren’t the people who set the targets, that’s part of a bigger set up. Someone also has to decide what data is to be collected. You can’t just collect everything, or there’s too much information. So what data are we collecting? Who sets the requests? Who analyses the feedback and reports it to the relevant people? No one.

And what about the players? Who looks after them? I know, I know, prima donna players with their fast cars and faster lifestyle… But they need looking after. They need to know that someone is there to help them when they’re not playing great. Help them when their personal life isn’t going great. Help them when the furthest North they’ve ever lived is Reading and they can’t understand the woman in Greggs. Help them when they’ve started going to Greggs too often. Often, it’s their agent (but we all know they’re not looking after the club’s interests), sometimes the manager or an assistant, but sometimes they can’t go to those people because they worry it’ll affect their place in the team. They need to know there’s a door they can knock on where someone will not only understand but is also in a position where they can either do something themselves or speak to someone who can. At Sunderland, well, you get the idea.

One person needs to take responsibility for the players, the coaches, the analysts, the recruitment, the negotiations, the medics and, quite simply the operational, tactical and strategic plans of the football side of the football club.

The club’s lack of structure on the football side is the single greatest threat to the future and our journey back to the top divisions and the board need to appoint someone to take overall responsibility before we can move forwards. Someone who keeps all of the cogs of the machine moving and working together for the greater good of the club. Someone that Reid, Parkinson, Coton and others can report in to and the board can call on. Someone who can take the underperforming aspects of the football side of the club and turn them into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Now, I don’t want to be greedy but, I also think this appointment needs to be one that takes us all the way back to the Premier League. This shouldn’t be a League One appointment because we’re currently in League One. It should be an appointment that shows where we want to be, what we aspire to be again, someone who will instil Premier League attitude and approach to everything we do. Maybe someone with huge experience of a similar role.

Would Brian Marwood like to save the club of his youth as his final job in the game? Or is this the ideal role for someone like Roy Keane to bring his obsessive levels of professionalism to every aspect of a club he has unfinished business with? Luckily it’s not my decision to make, but we must bring a Director of Football in…