UNDERNEATH the cloak of the ketchup ban, public ear-bashing and impatience for training ground laughter, there was one decision during Paolo Di Canio’s six-month tenure which really questioned his thought process.
Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund submitted a formal summer bid of £5million for Ji Dong-won after the striker’s impressive loan spell at fellow Bundesliga outfit Augsburg during the second half of last season.
For any player operating below the level of superstar, that was a massive offer for someone entering the final 12 months of their contract.
But after Ji’s modest impact in a Sunderland shirt, it was a Godsend given the club’s eagerness to balance the books and comply with financial fair play.
Di Canio vetoed the eagerness of those above him to cash-in though; genuinely believing he could mould the 22-year-old into one of the most lethal players on the Continent.
Instead, it was Stephane Sessegnon who was sacrificed to boost the club’s bank balance for just £1m more, albeit the man from Benin was on far heftier wages.
Now Sunderland face the possibility of some hasty back-tracking.
Gus Poyet has not even included Ji on the bench for any of his five games in charge and the South Korean was restricted to being the 19th man who travelled, and provided emergency back-up, for the trips to Swansea and Hull.
Unless Ji is improbably offered an extension to his contract, he will either leave for free in the summer or more likely, touted around Germany in January for far less than that original £5m offer.
But while Ji faces more uncertainty over his Sunderland stark, his fellow South Korean Ki Sung-Yeung is emerging as a key figure in Poyet’s new-look Black Cats.
Chatting with Poyet after he had worked with Ki for a couple of days on the training ground, the Uruguayan’s eyes lit up over what he had seen from the 24-year-old.
Poyet’s decision to restrict the former Celtic man to a pivotal late cameo in the Wear-Tyne derby was understandable, given the unique trench warfare of that encounter.
But Sunderland’s need for a composed head in the middle of the park, capable of maintaining possession, was glaring at Hull City and Ki would surely have earned a subsequent recall to the starting XI, regardless of Lee Cattermole’s suspension.
Ki has impressed so significantly in the last two games, though, that Cattermole may have to bide his time to return to the side when his ban expires after the trip to Stoke City in nine days’ time.
The on-loan Swansea midfielder is the vital cog in Poyet’s possession-based system.
In that Bracewell-esque role, Ki is the one who sets the tone and tempo and refuses to be panicked in the hustle and bustle of the Premier League.
If Ki continues to be the linchpin of Poyet’s blueprint though, it gives Sunderland that familiar conundrum of a cat and mouse chase to keep a loan success at the Stadium of Light on a long-term basis.
It would perhaps be a shock if Sunderland made a big money January approach to Swansea to convert Ki’s loan into a permanent deal.
Unless Sunderland’s league position improves to the point where they are firmly in contention for survival, the outlay in the transfer window will have to boast an element of prudence, given the huge financial punishment which stems from relegation.
Arguably, Sunderland’s biggest challenge in January will be to ensure Swansea aren’t tempted to recall Ki, given the demands of the Europa League have taken their toll on the Welsh club’s league form.
But if the Black Cats can harness the momentum from back-to-back home wins over Newcastle and Manchester City and cap a remarkable change in fortunes by ultimately beating the drop, then signing Ki has to be a priority.
Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins was adamant when Ki moved to the Stadium of Light on loan that he would be returning to the Valleys.
Yet Ki’s solitary season at the Liberty Stadium, after a £6million move from Celtic, was an underwhelming one.
Boss Michael Laudrup was happy to let Ki depart for regular first-team football and remove one of the club’s highest earners off the books.
And most importantly, in Sunderland’s favour, Ki will only have a year remaining on his contract at Swansea by the summer.
Surely if he can enjoy a season of regular first-team football in a successful survival campaign at Sunderland, he will be wary of returning to Wales.
Unlike his club and international team-mate, keeping Ki at the Stadium of Light could be an imperative part of the Poyet masterplan.