Chris Young column: Why Sunderland needed to sacrifice Costel Pantilimon

Costel Pantilimon in action for Sunderland during their 3-0 loss at Manchester United Picture by FRANK REID
Costel Pantilimon in action for Sunderland during their 3-0 loss at Manchester United Picture by FRANK REID
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“He’s impressed me immensely since I’ve been here,” said Sam Allardyce as he reflected on Costel Pantilimon’s contribution.

Allardyce had just seen Pantilimon make a pivotal point-blank save against Stoke to help Sunderland record back-to-back clean sheets and was wholesome in his praise of the goalkeeper.

Less than two months later, Pantilimon is out the door; unveiled by Watford and hailing his switch to Vicarage Road as the “best option” available to him.

What changed in such a brief time?

Perhaps a few cynics will speculate that Allardyce’s praise was all part of some grandiose plan to maximise Pantilimon’s transfer fee ahead of a January exit.

However, at that stage of proceedings, Vito Mannone was the goalkeeper destined to leave the Stadium of Light, if or when Jordan Pickford returned from his Preston loan spell.

Admittedly, Pantilimon wasn’t at his best last month, or throughout the season as a whole.

He just didn’t have that same aura of penalty area dominance which had been apparent during his maiden campaign on Wearside after breaking free of his restricted back-up role at Manchester City.

Neither did Pantilimon have anywhere near the accuracy or quality of distribution of his two fellow Sunderland keepers.

Yet this was still a stopper who, last summer, Sunderland’s hierarchy had envisaged eventually selling for big bucks to create the vacancy which Pickford would occupy.

The fee for Pantilimon has not been disclosed by either Sunderland or Watford, but it’s not a windfall which will finance a host of fresh faces.

But unfortunately, Pantilimon – on roughly double the money of Mannone – was simply a victim of Allardyce’s need to lighten the load on the club’s wage bill.

For supporters seeing the likes of Bournemouth and Norwich splash the cash this month, it’s infuriating and unfathomable that Sunderland are having to cut their cloth, particularly when last summer’s net spend was a modest one (by Premier League standards, anyway).

But that’s the reality at a club which has wasted mountains of money and boasts far too many players still on the books who have bloated the total salary.

Getting rid of the likes of Will Buckley, Liam Bridcutt and now Danny Graham has helped, but Sunderland are still picking up a portion of their pay packets during their loan stints in the Championship.

Allardyce has needed to wheel and deal, and remove one big hitter from the books. When January sales were contemplated last month, Pantilimon was clearly identified as one first-teamer who could be sacrificed.

Is it the right move for Sunderland in their bid to remain in the Premier League?

Perhaps in an ideal world, Mannone would have been the one to depart, rather than Pantilimon.

The Italian remains susceptible mentally when he makes an error – his self-assurance notably plummeting after escaping with a howler in last week’s win at Swansea.

But when Mannone is in a confident frame of mind, he is an excellent stopper. That Player of the Year title was no fluke and he returned to that kind of form against Liverpool and Aston Villa after taking Pantilimon’s spot.

Will the ex-Arsenal man be anything other than a back-up for the remainder of the season too?

Pickford is the keeper bursting with self-belief at present, even if the minimal protection offered by Sunderland’s defence has seen him leak seven goals in his first two first-team outings.

At 21, there are clearly question marks over his ability to handle the nerve-shredder of the relegation battle, yet the academy product is so level-headed that his temperament shouldn’t even be an issue.

Don’t forget either, that this is a youngster with more than 100 competitive appearances under his belt.

Pickford has the ability to be a Premier League keeper in the here and now, and that’s what he should be judged upon.

In the position Sunderland are in, perhaps Allardyce has to gamble a touch too.

There was more strength in depth between the sticks than in any other area of the squad.

If the wages freed by Pantilimon’s departure can be used to genuinely strengthen Sunderland’s options in midfield or particularly, defence, then it’s a chance worth taking.

He may not have been the first-choice for many supporters when asked to name a player Sunderland should be selling, but getting rid of the Romanian might just make a difference for the Black Cats.