Chris Young column: Sunderland must unearth gems in rebuilding

Duncan Watmore.
Duncan Watmore.
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GOALKEEPERS and loan signings. Over the last three or four seasons, they seem to have been the only areas of recruitment where Sunderland have enjoyed overwhelming success.

After Sunderland registered a £23million annual loss with Companies House this month, how Ellis Short must long for a Kevin Phillips-esque figure who arrives for a pittance and goes on to take his place in Wearside folklore.

If Sunderland were the man on the street, they’d be calling Watchdog over the return from some of their investments.

The club’s record in the transfer market has grated on Short.

The £10m invested in three players – none of which are currently at the club – in January 2013 is a particular source of frustration.

He has seen a succession of managers make severe inroads into Sunderland’s coffers and what has he got for it? Relegation battle after relegation battle.

Coupled with the tighter restrictions of Financial Fair Play, it’s why Short was far keener to balance the books with incomings and outgoings last summer, rather than leave the cheque book open – as was the case when he first took charge at the Stadium of Light.

That prompted criticism from some supporters, given the investment which was needed in a squad that finished fourth-bottom last season.

But there was still more than £12m to invest in two players; Jozy Altidore and Emanuele Giaccherini.

Neither can claim to have remotely been a success.

This has been a pattern for Sunderland over recent seasons.

The club’s best players have been offloaded – and generally for good money – yet, crucially, they have not been adequately replaced.

More than £30m has been spent on trying to replace Darren Bent alone.

Even the really big-money buys have failed to reap consistent rewards. Asamoah Gyan left after a year, Adam Johnson has only come good over the last three months, while Steven Fletcher has gone so far off the boil that his latest ankle injury was almost cheered by supporters on social media last weekend.

This is where new technical director Lee Congerton and head of scouting Steve Houston face a huge test of their credentials to justify the faith shown in them by Short.

Short still sees the director of football system as the best strategy to improving Sunderland’s recruitment.

Congerton comes with a lofty reputation from his time at Hamburg – testified by the five clubs who were vying to secure his services before he penned a contract on Wearside.

He certainly has more experience of the requirements of English football than his predecessor, Roberto De Fanti, and is part of a new breed of middlemen between dug-out and boardroom, who are happy to work within the confines of their role, rather than undermining the manager, as traditionally was the side-effect of appointing a director of football.

In tandem with Gus Poyet, Congerton has to unearth those under-the-radar signings that turn out to be hidden gems. Other than goalkeepers and loanees, that has proved to be elusive for Sunderland over recent seasons.

In an era of huge electronic scouting databases and video footage, finding those players is much harder.

Every club is casting their gaze over the same large pool.

But it’s not impossible. Swansea, Everton and, as painful as it may be, Newcastle, have proved that Premier League-calibre players can be unearthed for a modest fee.

Even if they are sold on for a healthy profit further down the line – as was the case with Yohan Cabaye in January – it still buys time to make other decent acquisitions.

Congerton’s remit will also be to look towards players for the future.

It was something Sunderland did for the first time last summer, as they brought in the likes of El-Hadji Ba, David Moberg Karlsson and Charis Mavrias.

Given there will be a raft of homegrown players released from the Under-21 squad when their contracts expire at the end of the season, it’s something Sunderland had to become pro-active in doing.

Ideally, Sunderland need Academy-produced youngsters coming through and pushing for first-team spots, as has been key in Southampton’s success.

It’s an unpredictable process though. For every year group that contains a Jack Colback and Jordan Henderson, there are others where there are no real contenders for the Premier League.

Ba, Moberg Karlsson and Mavrias have tellingly barely had a look-in under Poyet though.

The only new member of the development squad who has really impressed Poyet has been Duncan Watmore and he was signed before the Roberto De Fanti/Valentino Angeloni recruitment team was assembled.

Predominantly though, Sunderland need players capable of making a mark now.

Regardless of which division the club are in next season, there will be a major rebuilding job with eight players out of contract in the summer and five on loan.

Sunderland cannot afford another supermarket sweep where they are left hunting in the bin for the receipt afterwards.