Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sunderland AFC: The Blueprint for Europe?

Sunderland FC under Chairman Niall Quinn have no fear of change. Of this much we can be certain. Since Quinn led a cohort of investors in purchasing the Wearside club in 2006, the team has embarked on a remarkable remodeling of the then-recently relagated club, solidified this week as the club signed promising South Korea striker Ji Dong-won, highly-touted Ipswich forward Connor Wickham and finally - perhaps definitively - Birmingham midfielder Craig Gardner.

Deals for Manchester United trio John O'Shea, Wes Brown and Darron Gibson are still pending and the club reinforced its goalkeeper and right-side last week by signing established internationals Keiren Westwood and Sebastian Larsson on free transfer deals last week. Egyptian winger Ahmed Elmohamedy signed a permanent deal two weeks ago. Should the United deals go through - it appears the bids have been accepted by the Red Devils - the Mackems could field a side almost completely made up of new players next year. This is in keeping with manager Steve Bruce's modus operandi, as since Darren Bent's departure in January has announced the club in desperate need of remodeling.

The funds have come from player sales. Bent's January sale to Aston Villa brought in £24 million, while emergent midfielder Jordan Henderson cashed up to a reported £20 million. Sunderland - perhaps like even Arsenal now - have developed behind Shrek's pink cousin (Bruce) a reputation for developing players to on-sell. As a management philosophy, it's as practical and pragmatic as it gets - contending for the title is unrealistic, so building a solid contender for European football is a big win for a club only years removed from the embarrassment of footing the Championship.

In the five years since Quinn took control, he's brought in three managers after the demise of Mick McCarthy. Irishman McCarthy, who subsequently took Wolves to the Premiership and has kept them there for two years, was hamstrung in 2005-06 with a substandard squad which claimed a record-low Premier League points tally until Derby County's calamitous season two years later. Quinn invested unexpectedly in Roy Keane, who took Sunderland from the bottom of the Championship to the title. When Keane soured, the unlamented (and ill-suited) Ricky Sbragia was brought in, followed by Steve Bruce - another with a Man U connection.

The Wearsiders have re-tooled various times over the past five years; and though they flirted with the drop zone last season they are with Stoke city now considered the model that promoted teams should attempt to mimic should they want to retain their EPL status. It started with experience as players like Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole and Danny Higginbotham. There's a certain United theme to their squad as all the above, plus Kieren Richardson, Paul McShane, Fraizer Campbell, Phillip Bardsley plus loanees Jonny Evans and Danny Welbeck have apparated Wearside from the red half of Manchester, no doubt a direct consequence of the managers' places in United lore.

Season 2010-11 presented the Mackem support with their first top-10 finish since Peter Reid led them to seventh twice in Quinn's halcyon years partnering Kevin Phillips. The aim next season with such quality inclusions should be to replicate last season's success and perhaps sneak into Europe - Gardner and Larsson were Birmingham's shining midfielders last term, while releasing the versatile pair of Gibson and O'Shea could pay benefits. The "little and large" combination of Quinn and Phillips could have it's best long-term succession in two six-plus footers Gyan and Wickham.

Quinn, Keane and Bruce - uncompromising as during their playing days - along with majority owner Ellis Short, have assembled perhaps the most apposite mid- to long-term plan in the Premiership. However, the day by day management of Sunderland isn't above question - Bruce's skill as a tactician has been the subject of occasional scorn, while their squad still appears a striker short. It wouldn't be surprising at all to see Federico Macheda in the Northeast next season, perhaps accompanied by a tried-and-tested Assistant Manager (Ray Wilkins, anybody?). More importantly, they also need to get healthy after the end of last season was obliterated by injury.

Sunderland AFC - and subsequently Stoke City and even (perhaps) Wolves could solidify themselves as regular mid-table-or-better teams in the English Premiership. Swansea City, Norwich City and QPR would be wise to heed their example.

Image of Craig Gardner courtesy: Image of Bruce/Quinn:

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