Chris Young column: Sunderland must protect top assets better

Sunderland's Connor Wickham.

Sunderland's Connor Wickham.

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IT DIDN’T take long for the rumour mill to click into gear.

Just three games into the rest of Connor Wickham’s career and the Sunderland striker has already been linked with a move away from the Stadium of Light.

Admittedly, mooted suitors Crystal Palace would harbour little prospect of signing Wickham now after being interested in the 21-year-old during the January transfer window.

After a return of five goals in three games, Wickham’s price tag has shifted significantly and Tony Pulis would need to shell out money beyond Palace’s means to fulfil his lust for players over 6ft.

But while the reports this week fell firmly into the spurious category, it marked just the start of speculation over Wickham’s future this summer, particularly if Sunderland’s piece of escapology ultimately falls flat.

Even the briefest of scoring sprees these days are sufficient to send neon lights flashing for many Premier League managers, who are perennially desperate for a striker who can save their skins in the dug-out for a couple of extra weeks.

With only 12 months remaining on Wickham’s contract, he is an obvious target.

Yes, Sunderland would receive compensation if Wickham departed next summer at the end of his current deal, due to his age.

But those tribunal-decided fees are habitually a pittance. Certainly, it would be a fraction of the £8million invested by the Black Cats in 2011.

Prior to Wickham’s dramatic impact since returning from his loan at Leeds, there was a distinct possibility that Sunderland would have cashed in on the England Under-21 international this summer if the club had remained in the Premier League.

There was no shortage of interest from the Championship and, after offering minimal payback on such a lofty investment, Sunderland would undoubtedly have been tempted to bank something back.

Now, of course, it’s a very different scenario.

The issue is when, rather than if, Sunderland instigate talks over a new contract.

It needs to be at the top of the long-term agenda, once the short-term objectives of the next 10 days are out of the way.

The same applies to keeper Vito Mannone, who also has only a year remaining on his Sunderland deal.

Players who are developing into assets have to be protected.

That is not something Sunderland have done with any conviction over recent seasons.

All thoughts have gone to the over-riding objective of remaining in the Premier League.

Little consideration has been given to anything beyond that.

There was fleeting planning towards future prospects last summer.

But given the minimal impact of El-Hadji Ba, Charis Mavrias and David Moberg Karlsson, it clearly wasn’t done with a great deal of success.

The conveyor belt of managers hasn’t helped in that regard.

But presuming Gus Poyet is still in charge of Sunderland next season – and the head coach is certainly planning for that outcome – then half an eye in the close season has to revolve around what happens beyond the next 12 months.

Sunderland can’t afford to be facing another Jack Colback situation.

Colback has been excellent over the last three games and, even though his merits often split opinion among supporters, he would still have commanded a transfer fee around the £4m mark.

The likelihood now is that he leaves for nowt.

Some of the blame for that has to lie with Paolo Di Canio for using Colback as a left-back when contract negotiations began last summer.

But much of it has to rest with ex-director of football Roberto De Fanti for making a derisory offer of a minimal pay increase and an extra year’s deal to a player who was already one of the club’s lowest earners.

By the time Sunderland got around to make a serious offer, it was too late and that could cost the club millions.

The same applies to the other out-of-contract players, albeit Poyet may not have been as keen to keep them.

Setting aside the likes of Carlos Cuellar, Andrea Dossena and Oscar Ustari, there would still have been a return on the market for Phil Bardsley, Craig Gardner, Seb Larsson and Keiren Westwood.

Fulham were willing to pay £2m in January for Bardsley.

West Brom have been pursuing Gardner for the best part of three years.

Sunderland rejected an offer from another Premier League club for Larsson in January.

And Westwood is now wanted by several Championship clubs.

Sunderland would not have received a king’s ransom for the quartet, but when the club are striving to become far more self-sufficient, those pennies add up.

From both a footballing and financial standpoint, to have all these players leaving for nothing at once is bad business, albeit it would alleviate the strain on the wage bill if Sunderland are relegated.

More should either have been shipped out sooner or handed new contracts.

Those mistakes cannot afford to be repeated with Wickham and Mannone.