Inside Sunderland's 'brutal' January transfer window and what happens next

Chris Coleman was facing an uphill battle before the January window opened and within a fortnight the situation was critical.

Friday, 2nd February 2018, 11:34 am
Updated Friday, 2nd February 2018, 11:40 am
Coleman and Symons ended a 'brutal month' with five new additions

Lewis Grabban, gone.

James Vaughan, gone.

Darron Gibson, injured.

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Incomings? Jake Clarke-Salter had arrived from Chelsea on a short-term deal, a classy ball-player perfectly suited to the role on the left of Coleman's back three. Otherwise, progress was slow and Coleman was suffering a number of setbacks, many well out of his control.

The Black Cats were battered at Cardiff, Coleman relying solely on inexperienced youth in attack. He had virtually no options on his bench.

How keenly Grabban and Vaughan would be missed was always a subject for debate. It became increasingly clear as the window drew ever closer that Grabban would leave and while the way he himself exercised a clause in the contract to force an exit surprised, the fact that he left in itself did not.

Behind the scenes, few tears were shed.

Rightly or wrong, it was reiterated that Grabban's goals had almost always come in a losing cause. Coleman publicly referred to 'consolations and penalties'.

There were question marks over his suitability to the role Coleman demanded from his centre-forwards. Is Grabban's reluctance to press and his aerial weakness an issue? Not necessarily. In a side playing with all of the ball, deep in the opponent's half, his movement off the shoulder and instinct in the box could make all the difference. For Sunderland, though, something different was needed.

Vaughan was a better fit in that sense, but the move had not worked out and he too was keen to leave. Sunderland took the offer on the table and cut their losses. Had they delayed, would Wigan have switched targets? Then what? Would there have been any takers in the summer?

Sunderland took a gamble, boosting their budget a touch and helping Coleman with his priory aim, emptying the training ground of players doubting their Wearside future.

The biggest miss would be Gibson, who against all odds had made himself essentially the first name on the team sheet. In a team that had been desperately lacking composure and poise, he was fast emerging as Coleman's on-pitch leader, dictating the tempo of games, protecting the defence and building Sunderland's attacks with his long-range passing.

So Coleman, working closely with Kit Symons and Martin Bain, was left with gaping leaks to plug everywhere he turned. He had wanted three or four bodies in to begin with. He had one in Clarke-Salter, but had then seen three senior bodies disappear from the picture.

By the end, there were four more and while Sunderland's fate is a long, long way from being determined, there were two elements in particular to applaud. One is that Coleman held strong on his edict not to sign players moving to Wearside for the sake of it. The other is that despite the ever increasing desperation for new blood as the window drew to a close, the players brought in were ones that have an obvious and natural role in the system the manager wants to play.

There have not been many January's in recent history when you have been able to say that about Sunderland's business.

That is not to say that each player fits neatly into the 5-3-2 we have seen in recent weeks. Coleman will tinker with that from game to game but what he fundamentally needed was an injection of pace and energy into his side. Against Barnsley, Cardiff City and Middlesbrough, the lack of counter-attacking threat and presence was glaringly obvious and had alarming bells ringing.

In difficult circumstances, Coleman has found players that will help him implement his ideas. Kazenga LuaLua, a real gamble, but no panic buy. Coleman has identified him as someone who can add pace and ingenuity from a central area. Ditto Ovie Ejaria and Ashley Fletcher.

Will they make the difference? Only time will tell.

Certainly, the Black Cats boss would have liked greater experience. Jonathan Walters was an ideal target and one that Sunderland almost got over the line before injury struck. That they then moved onto Chris Martin tells you the profile of player they wanted but for numerous reasons, couldn't get. It could yet cost them but at least in Fletcher they have a slightly more battle-hardened option and one with some speed and presence.

So many deals were almost there. Lukas Nmecha, Ben Marshall and Andy Lonergan all looked close to signing at one stage. It was, in the manager's own words, 'brutal'. By the end, he could only laugh at what it had turned him into. 'Just look at me', he wearily joked before addressing the press on Thursday. 'Trust no one, everyone lies to you', he would go on to say.

If the final day looked like a scramble then that's because it was exactly that. Yet those who eventually did sign remained broadly in line with the template and plan Coleman had been working too all month. That is a refreshing change.

The Chris Martin deal, or lack thereof, was significant in many ways, particularly set against the backdrop of the situation at the club.

After the summer window, Simon Grayson was regularly asked whether the deals he had done in terms of bringing players in was enough. It was often suggested that question was the wrong way round. Had they done enough in terms of outgoings? That was deemed more significant and the noises were not good. A Premier League hangover remained in a clutch of players who clearly wanted to be somewhere else.

It has been no different for Coleman and it is a particular thorn in the side of a manager who places so much emphasis on getting the working environment right.

Money has changed the game beyond recognition but the basic principle of cultivating a togetherness and spirit among a group remains paramount. Unity has been at the absolute core of Coleman's plan since arriving but how can you make progress on that when you have a player whose earnings dwarf most others shirking the challenge? Training away, showing no appetite for the fight and being handsomely rewarded for it.

Jack Rodwell was offered the chance to leave on deadline day and he would have been compensated well for it. He turned it down and left the club exasperated.

What now? Rodwell has not refused to play but why on earth would Coleman pick him? Above all else, in pre-season and the early stages of the campaign the midfielder offered absolutely nothing to suggest he is a Championship footballer, never mind a Premier League one. That is before you even get to the risk of playing someone who mentally is so clearly not in tune with the core of what you are trying to achieve.

Coleman will respond to a knock on his door but he does not expect one.

This saga is no closer to a resolution and the next step will likely be a spell playing with the U23's. It hangs over the club and ultimately they will have to pay for their mistake.

For Coleman, these challenges are a new test and he will have been pleased to move on Didier Ndong. The overhaul is far from finished.

Walking away from the Martin deal was a line in the sand and one well overdue.

The biggest question, whether Sunderland will now survive, remains unanswered.

The Black Cats have had to gamble on inexperience and again, players who have not been playing. That Coleman was forced to do so much business was an indictment of what was another failed summer transfer window.

Getting the right characters had been at the core of the plan, then and that was fair, but the compromise on quality was too great.

Sunderland moved on Vito Mannone and brought in two senior goalkeepers, yet on deadline day a third was an absolute necessity. That shouldn't happen and does not reflect well on the attempts to improve recruitment structures since Martin Bain arrived.

The two biggest deals Sunderland did in the summer window failed and by the end of January one was gone and other other almost followed. Coleman inherited a squad imbalance that was worsened by the business done since the club dropped from the Premier League, rather than improved.

To keep the Black Cats up Coleman will have to find a way to get more from those who arrived and have flattered to deceive, particularly Aiden McGeady and Callum McManaman.

The Sunderland boss has already moved to get McGeady firing behind the scenes and there is a strong desire to make it work on both sides. That would be some boost.

Of course, it was another month in which the shadow of Ellis Short's absentee ownership loomed large.

The owner continues to write the cheques to keep the club going but little else. Surely there would have been value in an investment, even limited, to secure safety?

What happens if they go down, what value does the club have then? Does Coleman stay?

For those doing the business that was a frustrating hypothetical. Investment does not appear to be forthcoming and so with parachute payments declining in the summer, money was unbearably tight.

It left Coleman with a loan dependency that once again can at best merely postpone Sunderland's issues.

Yet another major rebuild awaits in the summer. If the club receives money at that stage for Khazri, Djilobodji, Ndong and others on top of the guaranteed fees that will arrive for Borini and Lens, yet Coleman sees none of it, it could be a moment of reckoning.

As teams at the top pushed hard to get big deals over the line, questions over whether any real success can be achieved under Short's ownership will crystallize.

For now, though, there is 17 games from which Sunderland probably need to secure 25 points.

Coleman's squad may or may not be good enough to achieve that. It is, however, better equipped to execute his game plan and has a better chance of managing any injury crisis.

At numerous stages that looked like it may not be the case. Credit is due to Coleman for making the best of it. Once again, he found himself fighting against years of failure before him. No one can say he has shirked the challenge.

Five players eventually arrived, but the manager remains Sunderland's best chance of survival.