NOW would seem to be as good a time as any to pose the question: “Was this summer, Sunderland’s worst transfer window. Ever?”
With head coach Gus Poyet meeting the Black Cats’ director of football, Roberto De Fanti, to discuss possible January targets this weekend and the players drawing breath after a bizarre and bruising start to the campaign, it’s an appropriate juncture to evaluate the events of the past few months in terms of squad changes and ‘improvements’.
And there’s no shortage of material to sift through.
With 14 players coming in over the close season and almost as many leaving, the turnover was nothing short of staggering.
In terms of players leaving, fans would probably find few criticisms – with TWO notable exceptions.
The loss of a batch of youngsters deemed not good enough to make the grade is par for the course in football and there were no grumbles about any of the young departed.
Elsewhere, players like Matt Kilgallon and Titus Bramble had been decent servants (or not, depending on your point of view), but with the contracts of both having expired, there was no clamour to offer fresh deals.
The sales of Ahmed Elmohamady and James McClean for £2million apiece was regarded as decent business, even by those who were their cheerleaders.
But where the club really put itself in the spotlight were the sales of Simon Mignolet and Stephane Sessegnon.
Mignolet would have gone to a more successful club at some stage, but there was still an argument for hanging on to him for another season at least, so outstanding were his performances.
Sessegnon’s drink-driving charge, which put his Sunderland future in jeopardy, was bad news.
But to sell him to one of the club’s mid-table rivals on the strength of that misdemeanour – particularly as it felt that it was done in part because Paolo Di Canio was showing what a stickler he was for discipline – did not sit well.
And when it emerged that Sunderland had sold their most exciting outfield player for £6m but TURNED DOWN a £5m offer for bit-part misfit Ji Dong-won, the contrast between the two decisions was glaring.
One or two people have suggested that Di Canio should have been sacked for the Ji decision alone.
But, regardless of that, there’s no escaping the fact the club which finished fourth bottom on the Premier League sold its Player of the Year, (Mignolet); the guy who was inconsistent and moody but who could still win you half-a-dozen games a season (Sessegnon); while one of their most exciting and able outfield players could not be held on to (on-loan Danny Rose).
For a team which finished just above the relegation places, it was a suicidal strategy unless the incoming replacements could pass muster.
The initials signs looked good as, under De Fanti’s direction, a host of new players came in quickly and the first impressions of Cabral, David Moberg Karlsson and El-Hadji Ba were favourable.
But it soon became evident that the trio, along with Modibo Diakite, did not look worth the money spent on them in fees and wages.
True, they may still be ones for the future.
But the bottom line is that of three head coaches this season – none have seen an immediate future for them in the team.
Against that backdrop, back-up centre-half Valentin Roberge has had more game time than expected without being able to nail down a place, while Charis Mavrias remains very much a work in progress.
The three loan players – Fabio Borini, Ondrej Celustka and Ki Sung-Yueng – have shown varying degrees of potential and the South Korean, in particular, could have a key role to play this season, but none of the trio necessarily expect to be at the Stadium of Light this time next year.
The only permanent signings who have had a genuine first-team impact over several games have been those Sunderland paid a real price for – £6.8m Jozy Altidore, £6.5m Emanuele Giaccherini and £2m Vito Mannone.
Mannone has done well but is no Mignolet just yet, Altidore looks the part but has so far scored no more Premier League goals than Danny Graham (none), while Giaccherini is a gifted player with a lovely touch but so tangential to games at times that Gus Poyet left him out of the Newcastle derby and the Hull game, looking to use him as an impact sub.
Inevitably, Di Canio has to take his share of the blame for this failure to launch after the summer switch around.
But so, too, does owner Ellis Short, De Fanti and chief scout Valentino Angeloni.
Di Canio himself muttered darkly, shortly before his departure, about how when things went wrong under the managerial structure Sunderland had recently adopted, that the head coach paid with his job every time while the director of football rarely did.
Given the departures of Mignolet and Sessegnon and the failure of so many of their replacements to make an impact, if anyone was giving a half-term report on De Fanti’s efforts so far, it would be heavily marked in red: “MUST DO BETTER.”
For the record, I don’t think this was Sunderland’s worst transfer window – off the top of my head, the one in January was worse.
More importantly, Short thought that too – sacking Martin O’Neill largely on the basis of the squandered £10m which saw Danny Graham make a minimal, non-goalscoring, impact, Alfred N’Diaye making the most marginal of impacts and Kader Mangane making no impact at all.
But the bottom line is that 2013 has not been a lucky year for Sunderland in terms of improving or taking the squad forward.
And the big concern is that the bulk of the squad selected by Poyet so far, and the key contributions made, have been almost entirely O’Neill or Steve Bruce players – Wes Brown, Steven Fletcher, Phil Bardsley, Seb Larsson...
It all means Poyet has much to mull over as he looks to improve Sunderland’s squad in January, with De Fanti’s help.
But he must be firm in getting the players he wants, if the players he is offered do not excite him because it is absolutely vital that the club has more hits than misses in the New Year.
Sunderland have had two disastrous transfer windows.
They cannot afford a third.