In the 2016/17 Premier League season, Sunderland finished 20th and were relegated for the first time in ten years. But it wasn’t just a catastrophe for Sunderland; it became a tragedy. The club then proceeded to consecutively finish last in the table and was relegated from the Championship down into the third tier of English football, League One.
Sunderland’s sudden freefall down the leagues was not the result of a single determining factor. It has been the result of an amalgamation of struggles through the decisions of poor recruitment, constant managerial changes, and infamous financial struggle during owner Ellis Short’s time at the club.
Five years after the initial catalyst to Sunderland’s demise, ‘The Black Cats’ currently face the prospect of promotion back into the Premier League after a successful start to the season.
But how has Sunderland been able to look on track to turn it all around within the last couple of years?
We take a look at a man who has played a significant role in the complete restructuring of the club to kickstart a revival of the club; sporting director, Kristjaan Speakman.
It wasn’t until November of 2020 that businessmen, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Juan Sartori, became new bidders of the club and the proposal of signing a new sporting director was well within plans. In December time, it was announced that Louis-Dreyfus would be the owner of the majority stake within Sunderland and one of the first decisions carried out by the new man in charge was the hiring of former Birmingham City academy manager, Kristjaan Speakman.
The young twenty-three-year-old French owner made it clear what his intentions were with his new club. Louis-Dreyfus was vocal to Sunderland fans about the long-term plan that he envisioned – there were five key principles that the Frenchman aimed to instill during his reign:
– Establishing a high-performance culture within the club
– Developing a football philosophy based upon Sunderland’s values and identity
– Opportunity for young players through a holistic development programme
– Evidence-based decision-making embracing data and technology
– Aligned and engaged with communities, supporters, and businesses
Of course, Louis-Dreyfus’ vision was not something that fans could expect to instantly be transferred to the club, however, there were encouraging signs. For example, the hiring of Speakman as a sporting director, encouragement of academy players within the first team, and much-needed emphasis on positivity resulted in the push for promotion back into the Championship.
The new sporting director: Kristjaan Speakman
Kristjaan Speakman began his career in the footballing industry at the ripe age of just nineteen by joining his local club, Derby County, as an academy coach. Speakman also achieved a degree in business management whilst at the University of Derby and continued to learn and progress his way through the ladder.
After only a year or so at Derby, Speakman joined Birmingham City in 2006 as an assistant academy manager. The Englishman was highly rated as a coach, and he became part of developing a top-quality strategy and progression pathway for young players within the club. Kristjaan Speakman oversaw the careers of players such as Nathan Redmond, Demari Gray, Jude Bellingham etc. and became an influential figure thanks to his great success in developing the academy for Birmingham.
As a result of this, Speakman had a slight shift in his position at the club in 2011, with the decision taken to increase his role within the club to take on a technical board position. This allowed Speakman to have a far greater grasp of control and responsibility within the club as it could include being a part of the succession planning strategy and player development plan for both youth and first team level – as well as utilising his coaching strengths to take a hands-on approach.
During his time in a more technical role at the club, Kristjaan Speakman highlighted his fantastic leadership qualities and ability to recognise and grow talent at all levels. In fact, he even authorised a policy within the club that meant that all first-team matchday squads require at least five academy products to reinforce his plan of implementing academy players to produce at the top level. Speakman often stressed his long-term plan of developing youth players and set up a unique player development programme that was tailored to individual young players’ strengths the personalise the necessary training and development for players to achieve and deliver successful results on the pitch.
Fast forwarding to 2020, Sunderland envisioned Kristjaan Speakman as the key man to lead the club to greater success with his plan of player development and, subsequently, the club hired Speakman as a sporting director to influence and change the structure of the club by altering the methods of coaching and proposed development plans for the future. As the season progressed, Sunderland was able to win the Papa John’s Trophy, although failed to achieve promotion after losing to Lincoln in the League One play-off semi-final.
Whilst the previous season ended rather anti-climatically after failing to return to the Championship, Kristjaan Speakman knew that necessary work was required by the club to put the club into first gear. The club brought in reinforcements, including nine transfers, six loans, and the promotion of several academy players into the first team. Whilst it became a large number of new players in the squad, less than £250k was spent, with funds being prioritised to fund other facilities within the club – as well as the fact that there was still controversy with the owner situation; Louis-Dreyfus ended up with owning a bigger stake within the club and therefore had more power going into the season.
Despite some newfound optimism flowing throughout the club, it wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine going into the season for Sunderland. After a 6-0 defeat to Bolton Wanderers, Louis-Dreyfus decided to sack manager, Lee Johnson, just after Christmas in January time. It felt like a major step back for the club, especially since Speakman began to cooperate and build with Johnson throughout the summer and early parts of the season. Sunderland fans were left in a position of major questioning after it had taken several weeks for the new manager to be announced, Alex Neil.
Speakman, as a sporting director, had his contribution to the signing of Neil and whilst he did not directly contribute to leading the team on the pitch, it was clear that he would be able to guide the club in the right direction. Neil proved to be largely successful as the new boss and led the club to promotion after beating Wycombe Wanderers and ending their four-year stay in League One.
There was, however, yet another stumbling block for Kristjaan Speakman and the club. Neil had announced that he would be leaving the club to join Championship rivals, Stoke City. It was a big blow – not just because Neil was a successful coach for Sunderland in getting them back to the Championship, but because it felt like another ‘reset button’ for Speakman and the other senior members of the club.
But it didn’t stop the club from rebuilding. It could even be argued that having a clean slate may have been more beneficial for the club. Sunderland announced that Tony Mowbray would be the next man in charge of the club, and it was the start of Speakman’s complete revolution of the club.
“Our starting point is continual improvement so, from our very outset, we’ve been continually driving to get better”
“We wanted to develop people within the building, so we wanted to take players on that journey with us”
“Naturally there is going to be cycles so we’ve got to try and obtain the right balance in the Championship”
Those were the words that Speakman explained to Sunderland fans. It did become a busy summer for the sporting director as he was involved in many discussions within the club, such as entering negotiations for Lynden Gooch, and Patrick Roberts and bringing back successful loanees, such as Nathan Broadhead. In total, Sunderland spent around £5M during the summer and it’s clear that the club were prepared to back the manager for the difficult task ahead of the club for the season.
Whilst Mowbray wasn’t directly told that he ‘needed’ to achieve promotion in his first season, the club have their ambitions and it was made clear by Kristjaan Speakman: “We’re an ambitious football club so there’s always a danger of over or under-pitching it. We’ve got to adapt to this league and that’s a longer process than what we’ve had so far”
“I think when we get to the World Cup break [in November], that’s a really going point for us to assess how the players have done and where we’re at. Once we’ve adapted then we just want to progress, and you’re constantly evaluating that as you go”
“We’re just constantly evolving. Tony hasn’t joined just to win the odd game and plod on through, we’re all really aspirational, but we just aren’t in the situation now where it’s win at all costs to get into that one or two spot – but we do absolutely want to get there at some point. That’s where we want to be, but we understand that to get there we have to get through some stages first. We don’t see a ceiling [this season], but it’s got to be a sensible progression”
Speakman knows that it is very much a long-term project for Sunderland in the next few years but to say that there is a plan in place would most likely be an understatement. The ex-Birmingham coach faced heavy criticism for ‘allowing’ to allow a manager like Alex Neil to depart from the club and especially to a division rival, however, his decision to work with Mowbray and his positive, attacking football has turned out to be more than welcoming evidence that he is the right man to turn the club around from behind the scenes.
Kristjaan Speakman has completely changed the way that Sunderland operates within the transfer market by strictly lowering the average age to a squad that had been already directed to playing a young team beforehand. His vision of success may seem unreasonable to some fans, although his work in the transfer window to produce arguably some of the best performers in Sunderland’s season, shows that there may be a genuine cause for optimism.
The signings of Alex Pritchard, Daniel Ballard and Ross Stewart are all examples of cherry-picked signings instigated by Kristjaan Speakman and his unique eye for players that specifically work well with the manager and respond well to the new player development methods put in place.
Compared to the last few years at Sunderland, it had almost felt as if the club were constantly throwing darts at a board with a blindfold on, hoping that they would land a manager to take them back to the Premier League. Instead, they have finally put a structure in place – signing Kristjaan Speakman as a sporting director to renovate and now completely overhaul the footballing infrastructure at the club has the potential to be the best signing the club have made in their recent history.
The club now operate with full communication between players, coaches, board members and owner and the trust and patience put in place has resulted in the club looking positive and upwards for the first time in years.
Sunderland has had a great start to the Championship this season. There is no expectation to win the league or achieve promotion with ease straight away, although there are encouraging signs already. Even if the club don’t reach the Premier League at the end of the season, it is looking highly unlikely that the club fail to finish in the top half or potentially even the top six.
To say that Kristjaan Speakman has transformed the club may be an understatement. The club will prepare with him and their new manager, Mowbray, for the future and it remains an exciting prospect.
Sunderland will continue to grow and with Kristjaan Speakman leading the way with his admiring emphasis on trusting the youth and redeveloping the structure of the club, fans have all the reason to become hopeful for the upcoming season and the near future.