DESPITE public protestations to the contrary, it would be naïve to think Martin O’Neill has not pondered where to dip his toe into the transfer market.
As interest inevitably begins to wane in a season where the solid, if not particularly riveting, achievement of top 10 status provides the only remaining intrigue, bar-room debates are already in full swing over who goes, who stays and who needs to arrive during the summer.
O’Neill’s mindset will be no different. While January was a time to land the stop-gap measures capable of ensuring Sunderland’s squad survived the ravages of the winter, June, July and August are the manager’s first opportunity to begin to put his stamp on those he inherited from Steve Bruce.
Several can be said with some certainty to be in O’Neill’s plans and the spine of this team is highly unlikely to undergo the same sort of revolution as last year when Sunderland were flush with cash from the sale of their star academy product and desperately thin on options following the exits of their various loan players.
But the one area of this side which screams for investment is up front, in order to bring an end to 18 months of searching for the right candidate to fill the elongated chasm still gaping from the loss of Darren Bent.
The end of Nicklas Bendtner’s loan move forces Sunderland to bring in at least one new frontman, with the noises coming from both club and the camp of tarnished striker Asamoah Gyan, hardly indicating a reconciliation.
Bendtner and Fraizer Campbell would doubtless have featured at Goodison Park yesterday had they not succumbed to injury and the latter at least seems assured in O’Neill’s plans for next season.
But Sunderland cannot afford to have merely Campbell and Stephane Sessegnon as possible starters, particularly after the latter struggled in solitude up front yesterday.
Opportunity knocked for Ji Dong-won and Connor Wickham on Merseyside to show they can also be contenders, particularly with the campaign now in its experimental stage.
But the respective involvement of the pair, coupled with O’Neill’s post-match comments, produced a telling message of their place in the pecking order, particularly as Sunderland were crying out for an extra body alongside Sessegnon.
With Nikica Jelavic, Tim Cahill and Leighton Baines more involved in nursing their stomachs with the pre-match fare than in continuing their trait of plaguing Sunderland, David Moyes’ focus was clearly on Wembley rather than the Premier League table.
But other than a spectacular Stephane Sessegnon overhead kick which drifted two yards wide of the upright, there was nothing to worry Toffees stopper Tim Howard.
It spoke volumes that the outrageous was the closest thing Sunderland came to mustering a goal, as time and again their approach play petered out.
The lack of a physical presence up front alongside Sessegnon was blatant, particularly as Sunderland struggled to move the ball on the deck with any tempo.
Craig Gardner was smothered by Everton’s five-man midfield, while David Vaughan proved adept at going sideways or backwards, yet offered little of note going forward.
Sessegnon was increasingly relied upon to play an orthodox striker role and he just isn’t that player – brutally highlighted time and again when the Benin man inevitably lost out to Simon Mignolet’s hoofs forward.
Sunderland’s widemen were rendered similarly ineffective by the lack of targets in the penalty area.
As usual, there was no lack of application from James McClean or Seb Larsson yet it was eye-of-the-needle stuff trying to pick out 5ft 7in Sessegnon, and occasionally Gardner, with crosses from the flanks.
The powder-puff attack wasn’t necessarily an issue in a dire first half when Everton were similarly ineffective going forwards, despite the best efforts of their one shining light Steven Pienaar.
Yet when Sunderland fell behind to Magaye Gueye’s opener, O’Neill significantly didn’t immediately turn to Wickham or Ji to give the Black Cats attack more muscle.
Instead, McClean was thrust into an unorthodox central role while Kieran Richardson took up the vacant slot on the left flank after Phil Bardsley finally succumbed to the groin problem which had been plaguing him for several minutes.
Only when that ploy failed to bring any immediate joy did O’Neill turn to Ji and then to Wickham, with neither of them able to alter Sunderland’s pattern of failing to test Howard.
There were the familiar occasional bursts from each when they looked the part, yet for every one of those, there were also the moments of slapdash control or being far too easily outmuscled which again displayed their tender years.
O’Neill didn’t mince his words in a radio interview afterwards – asking the rhetorical question of whether Sunderland would have fared any better had Ji or Wickham started, given their impact on the game.
It would still be a shock if either were jettisoned completely in the summer, particularly Wickham, given he is only 19 and required such a significant outlay last year.
The £8million man may also feel a touch aggrieved at his limited opportunities in the starting XI recently, considering his best moments for Sunderland came against Bolton, Aston Villa and Blackburn when he wasn’t called upon as a last-gasp resort.
Ultimately though, Wickham and Ji are still worryingly raw and perhaps the loan enquiries – which O’Neill has so far resisted – will prove more tempting at the start of next season, if the Black Cats boss has more depth to his forward options.