Back To The Future – Louis-Dreyfus’ Sunderland Mission Statement Is A Welcome Nod To Our Past

New Sunderland owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus has already outlined his footballing vision for the Black Cats - Graeme Atkinson examines its familiar origins and where it could take the club
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It’s December 1999. Chelsea have arrived at a chilly Stadium of Light and Gianluca Vialli’s men are anticipating the league double over Peter Reid’s top-flight newbies.  

Instead, the Londoners emerge from the pitch outclassed, outfought and, as a result, humbled. A timeless performance by the Rokermen and, for Reid, the solidification of a footballing identity that still holds sway in the memories of supporters.

After the match the BBC rightly reported that Sunderland had shown ‘commitment, teamwork and technique’ – you might say Sunderland’s blueprint for success through the generations, in a nutshell.  

Part of the joy in watching the team in those days was that players replicated the passion evident on the terraces, but also with Sorensen, Bould, Summerbee, Schwarz, Quinn and Phillips there was quality too. It wasn’t all ‘roll-your-sleeves-up-and-have-a-go’. Crucially, that era tapped into something that had always been part of the fabric here at Sunderland. 

In the 1930’s Alex Mackie, Bob Kyle and Johnny Cochrane all laid the groundwork, even the great Bill Shankly recognised it:

“In many ways the Sunderland team of 1937 played the same brand of total football as the great Holland team of the 1970’s.”

Those moments are clearly part of the past and in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Reid was simply the latest custodian to take the club’s identity and make it his own. 

After many a false dawn, the latest owner has taken the reins on Wearside with a new Head Coach and a blueprint for Sunderland is once again subject of debate.  

Sure, ‘footballing identities’ can prompt an eye roll or two from detractors who grapple with whether their team has one and, if so, how they even define it.  Yet, one thing is clear; Kyril Louis-Dreyfus (KLD) is re-imagining an identity here on Wearside, but it’s a philosophy that in some form has existed for generations, epitomised by sides in the ‘30s, early ‘70s and late ‘90s. Unfortunately though, like Karl Robinson’s commitment to sportsmanship, it’s become largely neglected.

Perhaps performances have not always reflected this fully but they have improved dramatically since the arrival of Lee Johnson and KLD. You can clearly see it is the start of something.  If we’re on a metaphorical journey, we’re at the stage where we’re deciding what to bring with us. But, we know the destination even if we’re not all old enough to remember.  

Very broadly, it’s a return to ‘commitment, teamwork and technique’.

Dusted down and tweaked to reflect the times, our approach can be the catalyst for progression up the leagues. 

Crucially, KLD’s appointments in the backroom are unearthing the foundations of something more focused – certainly more tangible – than anything Ellis Short or Stewart Donald could offer. The latter especially, had all the words but not the deeds to back it up.

Newly appointed heads overseeing recruitment, analysis and data and a Head Coach now sit under a Sporting Director in Kristjaan Speakman. The structure offers a unified, modern data driven approach and not the unorganised hodgepodge that existed behind the scenes until recently.  

Too often in bygone days disparate ideals clashed without a coherent plan and the club suffered because of it. That was our ground zero, our bottoming out.  This is the rebuild. 

KLD, Harvey, Young, Speakman and Johnson won’t offer a brand new philosophy; very few can do that in football. But that isn’t the intention. Instead it’s more a progressive and contemporary way to reconceive what we know this club is about at its core – an extension of the supporters themselves.

The minutes from a recent Supporters Collective Meeting with KLD are further evidence that the club is putting a modern twist on something already familiar, with a notable statement being:

“Football Identity – Needs to be representative of the people in the community and all SAFC fans.  Focused on an increase attacking output and a quicker and more intense press out of possession…”

At best the previous regime would have stopped at the first sentence. It didn’t understand how to even begin to implement the ideals, if such notions were ever truly crystallised in the first place. The fact that the new ilk understand that a change in playing style was required, and one that better aligned with Sunderland’s history, is a start. 

What is truly impressive is the speed with which KLD has gone about bolstering this with his long-term strategy. It’s an approach that is integrated with everyone pulling in the same direction, all main parties already appointed and knowing the role they play.

Yes, we’ve had a go at various models of football previously but they seemed half-hearted attempts, lacking forethought. Directors of Football aren’t new here. But, without a club designed from the ground up to take advantage of one who is effective, well, the model becomes meaningless. They’ve been ill judged appointees unable to wrestle control from those with differing views.  Some might say simply overpaid journeymen ready to take our coin.

Like the manner in which they left us, this era is also relegated to the past.

Going forward, the Supporters Collective Meeting offered further insight into KLD’s plans for an identity, emphasising,

“A football philosophy is to be developed across all age groups, including the first team and Sunderland Ladies. There will be a Sunderland way of teaching the game to all ages.”

It’s great to hear of the plans for unification throughout the club. It’s something that some supporters have mooted previously. Having the younger players already understanding what is expected of them before they even arrive in the first team is essential for the long term. But, it’s something that the ever-changing managerial hot seat on Wearside has prohibited. The approach Sunderland has in place now will see that this will not be a factor going forward.

So, what does the future hold? As KLD has said himself, there will be setbacks along the way but we can all smell it in the air, this is the rebirth of ‘commitment, teamwork and technique.’

Graeme Atkinson