Praise For the Unsung Hero as Sunderland’s Recruitment Continues to Bear Fruit

We take a look at Sunderland's head of player development Stuart Harvey, and the positive impact the former Blackburn man is having on Wearside so far

It was a majestic sight.

The ‘Zidane Pirouette’ successfully deployed on a slick Stadium of Light pitch. Better still, it was a player in red and white performing it. Amad was indeed the star of the show against Blackburn Rovers recently.

The eye-catching flicks and tricks complemented his tireless performance that chilly December day. The fact this is not an isolated incident this season is testament to him as an individual and the coaching staff too.

Crucially though the loanee would not be here at all if it were not for the Black Cats’ recruitment team.

To their credit, Amad is not the only excellent performer this season. Danny Baath, Aji Alese, Alex Pritchard, Corry Evans, Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke are all worthy of honourable mentions. In fairness, the list could go on further.

On the topic of recruitment, we are in the embryonic stages of another January transfer window and Sporting Director, Kristjaan Speakman is already in the spotlight. Whether it was in the interests of open communication with fans, a degree of ‘ego’ or both, with his recent interview via the club’s official social media channels, he has, in this moment at least, placed himself front and centre.

If his aim was to provide a detailed update to supporters around contract negotiations, aspirations for the window ahead and youth development, it is arguable whether that was successfully achieved. His remarks certainly felt light on any real substance. But, what we do know for certain is, from a position of relative strength in the league, the club now finds itself in a fantastic place to be able to add quality to the squad this window.

That surely is something to be praised.

There is even a sense that with good luck and a fair wind, playoffs are not out of the question such are the quality of the performances and the condensed nature of the league. Indeed, given the manner in which Sunderland AFC have perhaps thus far exceeded expectations in their first season back in the Championship, Speakman has received many plaudits among the fanbase. True, with a critical eye, not everything has been plain sailing. Yet, as this earlier piece highlights, there is also indeed much to congratulate him on since his arrival in December 2020.

However, the reality is, if our player recruitment is being praised (and in general terms, it should be) then it must also be fair to recognise that there are many cogs in a machine all working together to ensure potential success.

In short, it is a team effort. It does not solely rely upon Speakman.

That said, if we were to single people out, perhaps the most important figure in the club’s recruitment team and the one who should be receiving the most praise at the moment is Stuart Harvey.

The oft forgotten Head of Player Recruitment has through the use of scouts, contacts and the all important data driven approach, gone about identifying predominantly young players who have been largely either unknown in lower leagues or on the fringes of Premier League/elite European squads. And, in general terms, save for some few exceptions, the 23 players brought in under his stewardship have performed well, most with the ability to improve further as time progresses.

It is also true to say that Harvey’s remit is not just around highlighting players with potential but also picking out those who can also work together as a cohesive squad for Head Coach, Tony Mowbray to further mould on the pitch.

To that end, more than many others behind the scenes, it is Harvey’s success as Head of Player Development that will hopefully be at the continuing betterment of the club.

So, who is Stuart Harvey and what is his background?

Well, his foray into football started in 2013 at the semi-professional Northern Irish side, Ards FC, as Academy Director. Ards FC still recognise his efforts, stating on their Academy website: “Stuart put in place a development program for all ages and a player pathway for all to see where their development would take them. He was very active in growing the bond between the Academy and the senior sides and encouraging the reserve team manager to give Academy players the opportunity to play.” Notable player incomings during his time with them were Cameron Dummigan, Connor Mitchell, Luke Conlan and Shay McCartan.

From there, and building upon his newly acquired Pro Licence, Burnley FC appointed Harvey as Head of ID and Recruitment in February 2014.

Bringing matters back to the Blue and Whites, it is at Blackburn Rovers though where most will know his reputation begins to solidify. Appointed as Head of their Academy Recruitment & Talent Development in 2015 and then promoted to Head of Club Talent Identification and Player Analysis in 2018, he spent a total of nearly six years at the Lancashire club.

It would also be fair to say his departure came as a blow to Rovers who saw him as a key figure behind the scenes. There was even a degree of concern that the Black Cats could benefit directly from Harvey’s behind the scenes knowledge at Rovers, “Sources at the club (Blackburn) speak of a brain drain. There are fears Harvey, who knows what everyone earns within Blackburn’s recruitment set-up, will have a stronger hand if he decides to raid his former club for staff.”

Coincidentally, Corry Evans joined Sunderland AFC from Blackburn Rovers a few short months after Harvey.

Harvey’s arrival on Wearside in April 2021, as Head of Player Development, was seen by some to be somewhat of a coup. Coaching industry website Training Ground Guru stated at the time that Harvey’s appointment was a, “major signal of intent from the Black Cats”. The move also saw him raid his former club last summer by bringing Matthew Barratt from Rovers with him as Senior Scout.

Upon first walking through the doors at the Academy of Light Harvey said, “To be part of the infrastructure the new ownership is putting in place is an honour.  Sunderland AFC is steeped in history and tradition, but we also have a blank canvas to implement an innovative model that promotes sustainable, long-term and evidence based recruitment across the Academy and First Team.” The ‘blank canvas’ was the likely appeal to Harvey. A place where he could really implement his vision.

Embarking now upon his fourth transfer window here on Wearside and Harvey is recently reunited with Tony Mowbray who he is all to familiar with from their Blackburn days. In fact Mowbray appears to have been instrumental in convincing him to make the move to Sunderland AFC back in 2021, despite being Head Coach of the Lancashire side at the time.

Speaking about rekindling his relationship with his former colleague in September Mowbray revealed, “When Stuart left Blackburn to come here, he had conversations with myself and Mark (Venus) (Now also with the Black Cats) – he actually lived with us, we were like the three stooges living in an apartment in Blackburn!” Mowbray added, “I had to persuade him to come to Sunderland to be honest. We were so close and he is so good at what he does, the work ethic and the detail is so intense.”

Interestingly Mowbray’s remarks regarding Harvey’s move to the North East, while he was still in his role as Head Coach at Blackburn, may reveal what is in store for Sunderland in the future should the Northern Irishman remain in post here long-term, “…the processes that Stuart put in place are still in there, he doesn’t take them with him, this club have invested a lot of money on different systems, data driven systems that cost quite a lot of money that spill out the names of the footballers who want to play. All of the structure he’s put in place is going to be there…”

Given those referenced ‘processes’ helped Blackburn finish 15th, 11th, 15th and 8th in their last four seasons, and presumably similar, perhaps even better arrangements will be adopted here, as well as Mowbray and Harvey now working together again, this is possibly a clue to what Sunderland supporters can expect going forward in respect of league positions. Certainly it is hoped so.

Here we are then, up to date, and with Ellis Simms returning to Everton it is Harvey’s already identified replacement strikers, should they sign, who will be relied upon to help bolster what are very limited options up front. By limited of course we mean, in Ross Stewart, one solitary centre forward. Two further additions in those roles are considered a must in January, along with some reinforcements in defensive midfield and perhaps a keeper who could really push Anthony Patterson in goal.

These are three areas of the squad where we are considered very light and exposed, should injuries and suspensions mount. Once the names are passed from the recruitment team to Speakman, it will be then down to the Sporting Director to ensure the deals are struck.

In conclusion, if you are pleased with Sunderland AFC’s progress on the pitch and praise the club for its improving trajectory, Stuart Harvey should surely be recognised for his significant contribution thus far.

Behind the scenes he may be, but out of sight should not mean out of mind.