Before the appointment of Régis Le Bris last month, the outlook and short-term future of Sunderland threatened to be considerably bleaker than what we are beginning to see emerging from the Stadium of Light now heading into the new Championship season.

After being front and centre of criticism and frustration, Sunderland supporters may now cautiously have drawn a line in the sand with the club’s hierarchy following a briefly sustained period of positivity off the field following months of seeing their enthusiasm battered and their esteem bruised. We may not be at the point of accepting this as a paradigm shift for the club, but the pendulum has at least stopped swinging in one direction ahead of Sunderland’s return to action in pre-season later this week.

Le Bris will take to the dugout for the first time as the club’s new head coach on the back of an extensive recruitment process which dated back to mid-February and had to endure the turbulence of the end to Sunderland’s season, with just two wins in their final 15 games in the Championship.

On the back of mistakes made in December and early January, both on and off the field, it led to the first visible and audible signs of frustration from the fanbase with a series of banners unfurled in protest of the current ownership and recruitment model as well as the emergence of chanting against senior club officials. The fact Sunderland’s head coach search continued for as long as it did throughout the summer did little to diffuse those frustrations before the appointment of Le Bris finally arrived last month.

The intricacies of how far up or down the list Le Bris originally was will remain in the background, for now at least, but, after the Frenchman delivered an uplifting first press conference last week, there is a guarded optimism surrounding what his tenure might bring. Within that, however, Le Bris’ appointment has also started something of a domino effect elsewhere with news of Chris Rigg’s contract and Jobe Bellingham’s future since coming to the fore.

As May turned to June, Rigg’s immediate future was a particular point of interest. Ahead of his 17th birthday, speculation continued to grow over whether he would remain at the club next season, speculation which was only fuelled by suggestions of a deal stalling due to Rigg’s insistence on meeting the new head coach. Rigg’s hesitation was quickly followed by Dan Neil, who also stalled over a new deal, while Jobe remained the subject of intense interest from the Premier League with Crystal Palace and Brentford both testing the Wearside waters over the 18-year-old this summer.

Within two weeks of Le Bris’ appointment, however, some of those fears have been laid to rest as Rigg, chevroned in his new long-sleeved Sunderland home shirt, was presented akin to a Real Madrid ‘Galactico’ in agreeing his first professional contract with the club, with the complete ribbons and bows treatment added to his announcement.

“I think retaining talent is really difficult in the last few years because of all the finances that are involved in the game,” sporting director Kristjaan Speakman explained.

“You know the profile of the clubs that are out there. So, for us to be able to get Chris over the line was obviously really significant for us.”




Speakman would go on to maintain the club’s stance was relatively unyielding as far as Rigg was concerned insofar they remained confident he would commit his long-term future to the club throughout the summer. But with the likes of Manchester United and Newcastle United two keen admirers from home, and German duo Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund credited with interest from abroad, the actual feel around the Academy of Light may not have been so bullish.

“Internally, we didn't have too many doubts about that. We've got a really positive relationship with Chris. We've got a positive relationship with Chris' family,” said Speakman.

“I think if you looked at his development journey, you wouldn't be able to pick too much fault with how he's progressed into the team and into the squad. There's been more eyes on him, with how he's featured in the group, which is obviously great that him and his people have seen that.

“Ultimately, we just need to be agreed on what the trajectory is going forward and I know how happy he was to sign.

“I think how happy he was to put it to bed was because he's a young boy and he has to put up with all that scrutiny and questioning. For us, it's part of the job. We accept it. But, naturally, it's really, really good to get him signed up and I think it's a huge positive for the club and the fanbase.”

Had Sunderland dropped the ball over Rigg and managed to lose him this summer, owing to their own failings, it would have been a catastrophic error. But what Rigg signing his first professional deal does do is restore a little bit of the balance and faith to this Sunderland project.

Crucially, it also provides a significant vote of confidence in new head coach Le Bris.

Rigg’s insistence on wanting to meet and understand the club’s direction with the new head coach was hardly an uncommon preference, but agreeing to the terms mapped out at the end of the season in such a swift manner following the Frenchman’s arrival offers encouragement.

Sunderland value Rigg highly, of that there is no doubt. You don’t get the full glitz and glam of the announcement, the video, the photos the changed social media bio, if you aren’t well thought of. Sunderland’s hierarchy know they have a huge potential talent on their hands, it’s why the decision-makers at the Stadium of Light have gone out of their way to ensure Rigg believes Wearside is his home, from owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Speakman, right the way through the club’s structure.


From being in the academy set-up right through until the end of last season, this has been a prolonged journey, an exercise in grooming a star asset thorough the club’s ranks. It started at youth level, it transcended into Tony Mowbray’s decision to hand Rigg his debut aged 15 in the FA Cup third round at Shrewsbury Town in 2023 and the subsequent nearly moment at Fulham in round four when having a goal chalked off.

The environment of this Sunderland structure and model has allowed for Rigg to be considered on the fringes of the first team squad early last season, to become the club’s youngest ever goalscorer in the League Cup followed by its youngest ever league scorer a month later. It foreshadowed him being named a starter in eight of Sunderland’s final 11 games in the Championship, against champions Leicester City up against players with Premier League and Champions League experience, against play-off winners Southampton and at Elland Road against Leeds United. Big games for big players, that was the mantra, and Sunderland very much made Rigg feel included within that.

Rigg was protected when he was in that first team environment by interim head coach Mike Dodds who deployed him in a right midfield role, out on the wing away from what he described as ‘the melting pot’ of central midfield in order to ease a little bit of the pressure.

“I don't see that as his position [in the long run]. I think, as a 16-year-old, to play Riggy in the middle of the pitch is a lack of care for him and his development,” Dodds explained after Rigg’s debut against Leicester.

"I think him playing out wide and rolling inside is a perfect balance between trying to find him the ball, trying to get him to show everyone what he can do but also not put him right in the melting pot.

“If you go through a lot of the England team, where do they make their debuts? A lot of the debuts are outside of that cauldron. I think he'll be a midfielder long-term and I think as time goes on, he'll be a really important player for us."

Chris Rigg made his Sunderland debut in the FA Cup third round against Shrewsbury Town in 2023Chris Rigg made his Sunderland debut in the FA Cup third round against Shrewsbury Town in 2023 (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Rigg’s importance is something new head coach Le Bris was keen to address when arriving at the Stadium of Light – as was his positioning.

The Frenchman may yet to have fully unpacked his office, but the 48-year-old has already acknowledged the talent and potential at his disposal when it comes to Rigg, having made a career out of developing young players in France.

“He’s interesting,” Le Bris told We Are Sunderland. “I’ve had four or five sessions, so it’s still quick to understand who he is. He played as a right winger when he first played with the first team. I think he’s more of a No.8, maybe a No.10 and maybe a No.6 also.

“During the training sessions he is very interesting. He has a good level of energy, he’s very aware of the details, which is important, and I think he could be a very interesting player for us.”

There’s no doubting Rigg became a rare positive in an otherwise dreary end to last season when emerging onto the first team picture. Dodds’ handling of Rigg within that time has likely been key towards the teenager committing his long-term future to the club. It also provided an element of trust whereby Dodds could even throw the gauntlet down at Rigg’s door when asked about whether he will remain at the Stadium of Light at the end of last season.

“I love to Riggy to bits, and he knows my thoughts: if he doesn't sign, I think he's mad - that's my personal opinion,” said Dodds.

"If you're a young footballer, then Sunderland is just a huge opportunity right now in the trust we put in young players and the chances we give them and with the work behind the scenes to develop the young players we've got.

“His performances are slowly maturing and if he feels right now that there's somewhere else better for him, I'd like to see where that is to be honest. I just think this is a wonderful club to be a young player at the moment.”

It’s the first time there was even a shred of criticism, albeit constructive, but it again emphasised the trust and faith those at the club were, and are, willing to put into Rigg in the long-term.

There’s a temerity to Rigg which exudes confidence beyond his young years. It’s an attractive trait to so-called ‘big clubs.’ And the subsequent interest in Rigg from several major players in European football was genuine. We may never get to see beyond the Sunderland prism as to how tempted Rigg might have been to explore one of those options. At 17-years-old, however, those offers will likely come again should he continue on his startling trajectory over the course of his three-year contract.

Chris Rigg became Sunderland's youngest ever goalscorer with his goal against Southampton at the Stadium of LightChris Rigg became Sunderland's youngest ever goalscorer with his goal against Southampton at the Stadium of Light (Image: PA)

Rigg only need look around the dressing room to acknowledge some of the potential Sunderland have within their ranks and identify the clear pathway Louis-Dreyfus and Speakman are keen to ingrain on Wearside for young players to reach their potential and compete in senior football. Would Rigg have been afforded such assurances in the immediate short-term by senior club officials had he gone elsewhere? Perhaps not.

But Sunderland know the magnitude of securing Rigg to his first professional deal. As soon as the ink touched the paper, Sunderland knew they had another high-market value asset at their disposal at such a young age, which is what the ideology of this squad is.

Jobe is another player who falls into that bracket. The 18-year-old enjoyed a strong debut season for the club which garnered plenty of Premier League attention, but the focus for him is on another season with Sunderland to continue his development. Both Jobe and Rigg’s vote of confidence in the club and new head coach Le Bris by staying should act as a huge positive and a potential springboard for the club to attack the new season with. The hope will be the likes of Neil and Jack Clarke may follow suit.

The process may have been arduous, but Sunderland finally appear to be laying the groundwork for their proposed model from owner, to sporting director, to head coach and the rest of the club structure. There’s still a long way to go to complete their redemptive arc, but harbouring the ambition to retain big players is a step in the right direction.