Kristjaan Speakman: Academy at the heart of my Sunderland strategy
Written by Simon Austin — December 6, 2020
KRISTJAAN SPEAKMAN said Sunderland’s Academy will be “the centrepiece” of his strategy after being appointed as the club’s new Sporting Director.
The 41-year-old joined the club from Birmingham - where he had spent 14 years, latterly as Academy Manager - on Friday. Sunderland have not had a Sporting Director since December 2015, when Lee Congerton left the club following the appointment of Sam Allardyce as manager.
Speakman said his job would be to “make sure there is a line across all the football departments, and from top to bottom” and he has a big task on his hands. The Blacks Cats are embarking on their third season in League One and are currently without a Head of Recruitment, Under-18s coach, chairman and assistant manager.
One key role was filled on Saturday, however, with Lee Johnson appointed Head Coach on a two-and-a-half year contract. The former Bristol City boss said it had been a "whirlwind 48 hours" and that he was "absolutely blown away with the plans and dreams for the club.”
The 39-year-old was present for the 1-0 home defeat by Wigan on Saturday, which left the club sitting ninth in League One. A consortium led by existing director Juan Sartori and French billionaire Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, which is about to take control of the club, was the driving force behind the appointments of both Speakman and Johnson.
The new Sporting Director said his role would be much wider than just recruitment, with Sunderland’s Category One Academy at the heart of it.
“If it was a Sporting Director role where the emphasis was on player recruitment then I wouldn't be here, because that's not really how I see it fit,” he told the club’s official website.
"There was complete alignment between me and the owners on what the role looks like. I see that as me having autonomy over the football department to make sure there is a line across all the football departments, from top to bottom.
"Recruitment is one fifth. That's the thing that has attracted me to this position - it's the vision that the ownership group want for the club, the ambition, the finances, and the structure they are willing to put behind it, and ultimately the autonomy for the position that I hold to be able to get on with my job, which is massively important.
“One of the things that's important about this project is that they want to create a best-in-class Academy - they want Sunderland's Academy to be the centrepiece of their strategy.
“They also want this to be a powerhouse in the North East of high performance and an institute of excellence across medical, analysis and sports science.”
Executives in Sport Group was retained on the club's behalf to run the headhunt for the role.
Johnson, who was sacked by Bristol City in July, said he was happy to work with a Sporting Director, even though he hadn't at his previous club.
"I see it as a good thing now," he said, "for a club of this size to be able to have somebody who is the buffer to the board to help recruit excellent people into the staff and almost act as the glue effectively in what should be a really positive working environment.
"From my early interactions with Kristjaan I've found him very very good to work with."
Speakman will start the process of finding a new Head of Recruitment in the coming days, with Tony Coton having left the role in July. Meanwhile, Johnson is expected to name his assistants this week.
In an exclusive interview with TGG, which was published last Monday, Johnson said: “Putting your backroom team together is critical and it's something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, while I've been out of the game. How are you going to define roles within your staff? What do you need?
“Credibility and skillset are key, but trust and dynamic are too. Assistant managers are so important. They have to be what the manager is not on a particular day. If the manager is full of energy, then have the emotional intelligence to sit back and observe.”
Perhaps the appointment of a Sporting Director - the club’s first in five years - will be the most important of all though.
In an interview last February, Norwich Sporting Director Stuart Webber suggested that this was the position the club needed to be looking at, instead of pinning everything on the manager.
“You probably watched the Sunderland documentary on Netflix,” he said. “When you watch that, it’s no surprise that they suffered a double relegation, it really isn’t.
“They put all their faith in one man, the manager, and as soon as it went wrong, said, ‘it must be his fault’. Why not look a bit deeper?
“Maybe that group of players wasn’t good enough, maybe the culture wasn’t right, maybe the head coach needed some support. Instead, you put him on a pedestal and said, ‘go and sort this out will you?’”