Martin Bain's revamped department must deliver two key qualities in transfers this summer

Here we are again, looking longingly to the summer months.

Wednesday, 21st March 2018, 12:45 pm
Updated Wednesday, 21st March 2018, 12:45 pm

For respite, certainly, and also in the hope that this time, there will be a rebuild to believe in.

That August rolls around and brings with it a new Sunderland team that, for the first time in many a year, is ready to hit the ground running. A team that, for the first time in a decade, truly reflects the resilience and spirit of the city it purports to represent.

Sean Maguire keeps the ball under pressure from Sunderland's Jake Clarke-Salter in Preston's 2-0 win at the Stadium of Light on Saturday. Picture by Frank Reid

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Few will hold much hope.

Should Ellis Short remain in charge, there will in all likelihood be a small budget for the manager to work with once again.

Sunderland will be able to shift a number of players, but some will remain, unwanted elsewhere.

Unless a new owner comes in with new funds, new ideas, the needle is unlikely to shift dramatically.

Jake Clarke-Salter in action for Sunderland.

Nevertheless, the close season will bring an opportunity of sorts, even if Short remains in charge, and it is one that Sunderland simply have to take if they are to prevent large swathes of its support well and truly falling out of love.

Boss Chris Coleman will not give up on the relegation fight until the last whistle, but you suspect that, deep down, he is itching to get to a point where he can make substantial changes to his dressing room and squad, regardless of what division that is from.

There will be a natural turnover of players, with a number coming to the end of their contracts and others making their loan moves away from Wearside permanent.

Two words will surely dominate the rebuild.

Chris Coleman.

Pace and power.

Coleman has made repeated reference to them during his short time at Sunderland, saying that, in these leagues, it can ‘change your life’.

Of all the injury woes he has suffered, the continuing absence of Paddy McNair and Duncan Watmore have surely been the most damaging. This season, Sunderland have been unbalanced, one-dimensional, weak, lacking identity.

A major injection of athleticism is required if the Black Cats are going to become competitive and, most importantly of all, rebuild hope and faith in the stands.

Sean Maguire keeps the ball under pressure from Sunderland's Jake Clarke-Salter in Preston's 2-0 win at the Stadium of Light on Saturday. Picture by Frank Reid

Without investment, it will not be easy, but Sunderland simply cannot afford another summer where they fall into the trap of scrambling for players who have too long been out of favour, out of the weekly grind of playing football.

Saturday’s opponents, Preston North End, made for a fascinating case in point.

When Simon Grayson was poached from Preston and appointed Sunderland manager last summer, it was an appointment not universally celebrated but one largely accepted.

Absolutely central to that was the reputation Grayson was building for mining undervalued markets, finding talent that was proving remarkably adept at stepping up to the second tier.

He had rolled the dice on the largely ignored League of Ireland, bring in Andy Boyle, Daryl Horgan and Sean Maguire. They have not been universal successes, but Maguire is in the middle of a scoring streak that has made Jordan Hugill’s January sale irrelevant.

Many of his better players, including the consistent Chris Maxwell and the talented Tom Barkhuizen, were picked up for a pittance in the lower leagues.

Jake Clarke-Salter in action for Sunderland.

At his Stadium of Light unveiling, Grayson said that he could return to the League of Ireland, and that all areas of the British Isles would be fertile recruitment ground.

Yet, ultimately, it was the same old story – unimaginative signings, either great gambles on unproven youngsters, or players picked off the fringes of Premier League squads, without regular football in an age and needing too long to rediscover their best form.

The team was built not to an image or an identity, but in the hope that there would be enough individual quality to stay afloat.

It has not worked and too often they have been picked off by better drilled, better balanced, tougher opposition.

Preston, meanwhile, carried on as they had before.

In January, they picked up Louis Moult and Billy Bodin, regular goalscorers picked up at no great expense.

There may not have been a great difference between Sunderland and Preston last Saturday, or indeed between Sunderland and QPR the previous week, or between Sunderland and Millwall the week before that, but is no coincidence that these teams have found better consistency and their fans a greater sense of contentment.

In Grayson, McGeady and Hugill, Preston lost what many believed to be their best assets in the space of six months. They’ve improved, thanks mainly to a brave but considered signing strategy.

Both Grayson and his Sunderland successor, Chris Coleman, were faced with daunting transfer windows, having arrived with little time to prepare. The results have shown that the processes in place away from the manager’s influence have not been good enough.

This summer has to be the moment that the department Martin Bain revamped, headed by Jimmy Sinclair and Neale McDermott, delivers some return.

Successful teams in the Championship this year have had very different paths to success, but clear paths nevertheless.

Sunderland’s scouting network and off-field connections mean a Wolves-style plunder of Europe’s finest is unlikely. Their finances mean a Middlesbrough-style splurge is impossible.

Over the course of the Black Cats’ Premier League tenure, too many players passed through with talent but little application.

The disconnect has been slow, steady and now seems irreversible.

Sunderland fans will pray for a takeover and a new direction. Most will hope that Coleman will be given the scope by a new owner to lead it.

Whatever happens, it is time for a change of course.

Across the British Isles, in the less heralded leagues, Sunderland have long found fertile grounds.

Their prolonged Premier League stay perhaps led to neglect of these traditional scouting avenues, but circumstance surely calls for a rethink.

Under Coleman’s guidance, they may just find the pace, power and identity they need – players with hunger and drive, everything to prove; players that supporters build an instant affinity with.

What a thrill it would be to see the next Sean Maguire celebrating in the Stadium of Light, wearing red and white.

Chris Coleman.