With 19 Players Out Of Contract, Kristjaan Speakman Faces Big Decisions

With a raft of players soon to be out of contract, Graeme Atkinson delves into what could be the trump card in Speakman's tough negotiations

Another season blighted by COVID is drawing to a close. It’s about now that the scale of the task lying ahead for Kristjaan Speakman snaps more sharply into focus.

Sunderland’s new Sporting Director has the test of not only navigating through the shadowy waters of a summer transfer window, but given the large number of players out of contract, also formulating a squad rebuild.

Although it doesn’t necessarily feel like it at the moment, as we bask in the positivity, there are parallels here with recent campaigns. Around this stage of the season and for the last several years the Black Cats have suffered from not knowing in which division they would compete, in the year ahead. It has been this transient existence within the leagues that has previously shattered any chance of consistency.

However, this time, as the Lads challenge strongly for promotion rather than fight to stave off relegation, the task of reconstruction should be viewed through more positive optics. The problems for Speakman though are analogous.

Leaving any potential new incomings to one side, the situation around our soon to be out of contract players should be concluded as the priority. From this position of certainty, the club will at least know what it’s starting with come the curtain raiser in August.

Looking down the list of affected players, the club has presumably by now decided whom they would like to keep on Wearside. That would seem obvious. Jack Diamond’s freshly inked three-year deal suggests that’s the case too.

Hopefully there is a degree of calmness about the whole situation behind the scenes. Although, the number of contracts that expire in June and the potential problem this presents shouldn’t be underestimated.

Leading goalscorer, Charlie Wyke, the talismanic Aidan McGeady, captain Max Power, Lee Burge, Josh Scowen, Grant Leadbitter, Jordan Willis and Denver Hume; just some of the names yet to finalise a deal. Perhaps, most importantly of all, Luke O’Nien also sees his contract expire at the end of June. That’s almost a starting eleven in itself.

Save for Willis and Hume’s injury layoff, all have played key roles in defining (what is hoped) will be a tremendously successful year, on and off the pitch. All could, in theory, have some part to play in a Championship campaign too.

True, Grant Leadbitter may yet retire at the end of the season. It could also be argued his legs would find the pressures of a higher league more challenging, too much in fact. However, that’s for him to grapple with in the coming months.. Yet, if the heart spoke before the head, most supporters would agree he deserves to leave the club in front of a packed out Stadium of Light.

Crucially though, there will need to be a balance struck when offering long-term contracts, on presumably increased terms. It’s an equilibrium that needs to satisfy both club and player should the unthinkable happen and another season in League One awaits.

That’s the delicate situation in which Speakman finds himself. No doubt some players will understandably look to the end of the season before making any such commitment. O’Nien is one who has suggested as much.

The club needs to avoid at all costs, financially disastrous contracts signed by players with even greater disastrous ability. The list of those who fall into this category are considerable. Jack Rodwell perhaps symbolises the worst of that ilk – large in contract, little in commitment. Yes, this is a different squad with an altered mentality but Speakman will be wary of the ‘contract year phenomenon’, which exists in all professional sport.

However, and here’s the rub, to assist Speakman in negotiations he has a-not-so-secret-weapon. Following the arrival of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, for the first time in what feels like eons, Sunderland is on an upward trajectory. The club can look its biggest players in the eye and say, if they want the best for their careers, to climb the football pyramid with the biggest club they will likely play for, they are better off staying on Wearside. The entire infrastructure is in place this time around to support them.

Therefore, when it comes to matters of contract negotiations, dialogue with agents may yet prove protracted and poker-like. But, in the final analysis, when the players are considering the future, the sell should be easy. Speakman has a Royal Flush.

Graeme Atkinson