AS SUNDERLAND put the final touches to Liam Bridcutt’s move on Thursday night, Gus Poyet joked to Black Cats chief executive Margaret Byrne that they could get the cigars out on deadline day.
Bridcutt was the final piece in Poyet’s January jigsaw and the Sunderland boss envisaged the only business on January 31 to be the departure of either the club’s youngsters or dead-wood.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
After Stoke City’s opening offer for Lee Cattermole on Thursday was immediately rebuffed and the Potters failed to return later in the day with a follow-up bid, Poyet thought that was the end of the matter.
But from early doors yesterday morning, it became obvious to Poyet that Stoke were determined to land Cattermole.
The offers went up and up, and when Poyet unusually arrived an hour late for his press conference in the afternoon, he was clearly in two minds over the Teessider, who has played such a key part in Sunderland’s rejuvenation over the last four months.
Stoke’s bid of around £5million was labelled as “impressive” by Poyet, even though he had never countenanced selling Cattermole at any point since devising his transfer plan with ex-director of football Roberto De Fanti back in November.
But in the end – whether it was through a change of heart from Poyet or Sunderland discovering it was impossible to land a suitable replacement in the remaining hours of the window – the Black Cats reached the right decision.
Cattermole may well fall behind Bridcutt in the pecking order and even depart in the summer, when Sunderland might not recoup anywhere near a £5m figure for one of the club’s top earners.
Yet the benefits of keeping Cattermole far outweigh the benefits of letting him go.
Sunderland would have been strengthening the hand of one of their relegation rivals, who were clearly desperate for Cattermole’s grit and leadership in the middle of the park.
And they would also have lost one of the strongest characters in the dressing room.
That transformed team spirit has been pivotal to Sunderland’s improved prospects and the likes of Cattermole, Phil Bardsley, John O’Shea and Wes Brown have been the rallying figures.
On the pitch too, Cattermole would have been a big loss.
Poyet is clearly a huge fan of Bridcutt, but had Cattermole departed, there would have been huge pressure on the former Brighton man, who has never played a game of Premier League football.
It’s far better for Bridcutt to compete for that defensive midfield role in a much gentler introduction to the top flight.
As for Cattermole’s mental state, Poyet has no concerns and the 25-year-old’s tigerish determination will be much-needed over the next four months.
Those who did leave on deadline day all represented good business for Sunderland.
One of the club’s brightest prospects, Duncan Watmore, finalised what should be an ideal move to the SPL with Hibernian.
Two of the summer’s questionable signings, David Moberg Karlsson and Modibo Diakite, both departed, with Sunderland hopeful of offloading the pair permanently in the summer.
David Vaughan finalised his exit from the Stadium of Light after joining Nottingham Forest until the end of the season, when his Sunderland contract was due to expire.
And at the death, Middlesbrough triumphed in the pack of Championship clubs vying for Danny Graham, albeit that was more of a concern for Hull City than Sunderland.
Setting aside Watmore, the other four are all removed from the wage bill and, added to the departures of Cabral and Ji Dong-won earlier last month, Sunderland have enjoyed a fruitful time in lessening the demands on the books.
Now that the smoke has cleared, January also has to be classed as a successful month in terms of incomings.
Yes, ideally Poyet would have added more of a goal-threat to his midfield and a more orthodox frontman than Argentinian arrival Nacho Scocco, with both Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher struggling.
But every wish on the list is rarely ticked during a transfer window.
With the five players that Poyet has brought in, he has addressed the most pressing deficiencies in the squad.
An orthodox left-back was at the very top of Poyet’s priorities and, in Marcos Alonso, the Sunderland boss looks to have landed a real coup.
On the evidence of his early display in red and white, the only question mark over the on-loan Fiorentina man will be whether Sunderland can land him on a permanent basis.
But then Sunderland had to show an element of financial prudence with their January recruits, due to their precarious league position, and three of the five additions have duly only arrived until the end of the season.
Even if they do remain in the Premier League, six-month stints for Oscar Ustari and Santiago Vergini will give Sunderland the chance to gauge whether the Argentinian pair can adapt and make the grade in England.
Ustari is an experienced custodian as back-up to Vito Mannone during Keiren Westwood’s stint on the treatment table, while Vergini is a player Poyet has been tracking since he was in charge at Brighton.
Given the reservations over Valentin Roberge and the departed Diakite, it was crucial that Poyet landed some cover for John O’Shea and Wes Brown at centre-half, particularly given the latter’s injury record.
But it is the two players that Sunderland have paid money for that has given Poyet real pleasure.
Time will tell whether Scocco can adapt his game to the Premier League.
But the Argentine international – signed from Brazilian club Internacional – has a superb reputation in South America and Sunderland undoubtedly needed an extra figure capable of producing a flash of magic in the final third.
However encouraging the return to form of Adam Johnson has been, it would be naive for Sunderland to rely on one player’s flair to provide the necessary attacking threat.
Bridcutt is similarly untested in the Premier League, yet is less of a risk, particularly in Poyet’s mind.
As soon as Poyet was appointed Sunderland boss, Brighton were braced for an approach from their former manager and, after a tiresome January pursuit, the Black Cats have finally nailed their man for a more than reasonable £2.5million.
Poyet remarked that Bridcutt was good enough to play for Real Madrid after he played a pivotal role in knocking Newcastle out of the FA Cup 12 months ago.
Given those comments, Cattermole may face a stern challenge to keep his place.
But at least now, Poyet faces that welcome problem of picking between the pair.
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