Assessing every player sale of the Stewart Donald era at Sunderland so far and what it shows us

The fate of the 2019/20 season remains uncertain and even if football does return in the summer months, Sunderland’s promotion hopes hang by a thread.
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The prospect of a third campaign in League One looms large and debate has been intense as to the reasons why that could prove to be the case.

Recruitment has been seen by many as one major failing.

Sunderland’s wretched record in turning a profit on players brought in was one of the central reasons for their long decline in the Premier League and the incoming business since their demotion to the third tier has underwhelmed many.

Josh Maja celebrates what proved to be his last goal for SunderlandJosh Maja celebrates what proved to be his last goal for Sunderland
Josh Maja celebrates what proved to be his last goal for Sunderland
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The changes made at the club this season are a tacit recognition of the shortcomings in that department.

The scouting network was cut back significantly in the early days of the Stewart Donald era, and it is only during the current campaign that it has begun to be built back up.

Non executive-director David Jones has identified building a ‘modern system’ as a key priority, and it is likely to be an important part of new CEO Jim Rodwell’s remit.

But what about selling players?

For many of Sunderland’s upwardly mobile rivals, sales are a vital part of their growth and sustainability.

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We’ve assessed the outgoing deals done in the Donald era, to assess what lessons could be learned and what could be on the horizon as football moves into a more uncertain era….


Paddy McNair (Middlesbrough, £5 million est.)

Sunderland initially rebuffed some miserly bids from Brighton for McNair, before a protracted pursuit by Middlesbrough eventually paid dividends.

The fee looked on the light side for a player who in the closing stages of the previous campaign, had looked comprehensively over the ACL injury that had disrupted his progress.

Chris Coleman said having a player like McNair in the Championship ‘changes your life’ and it was true that they never looked more capable of competing in that campaign than with the Northern Irish international in the side.

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It was a surprise, then, that he found it so difficult to break into Tony Pulis’ XI during a disappointing first season.

Though Middlesbrough have struggled this season, McNair has unsurprisingly bounced back and been a central part of Jonathan Woodgate’s plans.

Still just 25, he will surely deliver a profit for Middlesbrough if he was to leave.

The athleticism he possesses is something Sunderland have not produced enough of in recent times.

Jack Rodwell (Mutual agreement)

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Rodwell’s final year on Wearside had been acrimonious to say the least, but Stewart Donald said the midfielder had been ‘sensible’ in his approach to negotiations regarding a mutual agreement to bring his contract to a close a year early.

He had a relatively successful campaign at Blackburn Rovers before joining Sheffield United, where his role as defensive cover means he has not had much action.

Jason Steele (Brighton, free transfer)

Sunderland did not receive a fee for Steele, but after a difficult campaign as the club were relegated to the Championship, taking his wages off the bill was a pragmatic decision that made sense at the time.

That he stepped up to the Premier League surprised many, but he had a good relationship with the coaching staff there and has proved dependable back-up.

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The Black Cats ultimately made a loss but it proved to be a more mutually beneficial departure than many would have anticipated.

Joel Asoro (Swansea City, £2 million)

Asoro’s departure was initially a controversial one.

The Swede had arguably made a bigger impression than Josh Maja in the previous campaign, and his raw pace made him a player many expected to be key in League One.

The fee paid by Swansea City was seen by many as on the low side and that feeling was heightened why he made a major impression in South Wales during their early friendlies.

Like Maja, Asoro had just one year left on his contract and while his attributes were obvious, the early stages of pre-season had left Jack Ross unsure as to how big a role he would play.

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When the offer came in, it was one he felt represented very good value based on what he had seen from Asoro in training up until that point.

He struggled to make any impression in league action, leaving Swansea last summer to join FC Groningen on loan.

He has been more of a regular in the Eredivisie but with that division brought to an early end, his future is uncertain.

Wahbi Khazri (AS Saint-Etienne, £9 million est)

A successful loan campaign in Ligue 1 as Sunderland were relegated to the third tier meant that the Tunisian was always likely to deliver a welcome return for the new regime, and he duly did so.

Callum McManaman (Wigan Athletic, nominal fee)

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McManaman’s departure late in the pre-season campaign was as swift as it was surprising.

After a frustrating first campaign on Wearside, he had quickly developed a good relationship with Ross and was the most impressive player in the opening pre-season fixtures.

His wages were significant, though given he had taken a cut upon relegation to League One, not ruinous.

The prospect of a return to Wigan, where he had won the FA Cup, proved too tempting but on departure he stressed how much he had enjoyed working under Ross.

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Wigan effectively took over the year left on his deal but his gametime was limited and he has spent the current campaign at Luton Town.

Ultimately, it was an attacking threat that Ross could have done with during the last campaign.

Papy Djilobodji & Didier Ndong (Breach of contract)

Sunderland had hoped that a difficult situation over Didier Ndong’s future would reach an amicable solution when Torino placed a relatively substantial bid for his services.

That move collapsed as Ndong discussed terms with the Serie A club and he was ultimately served notice for breach of contract when he did finally return to Wearside.

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Sunderland did claw back some funds when he eventually joined Ligue 1 side Guingamp.

Djilobodji was also served notice for breach of contract and is now playing in Turkey after a similarly unsuccessful spell at Guingamp.

It is hard to understate the time and effort resolving both of these situations commanded.

Lamine Kone

Though Kone made clear he did not wish to stay at Sunderland, he did return for pre-season to maintain his fitness.

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That made his departure far easier to negotiate, Strasbourg taking on his significant wages before paying an undisclosed fee to make the switch permanent last summer.


Josh Maja (Bordeaux, £1.25 million est, with add-ons)

Maja’s departure to this date remains arguably the most significant moment since Sunderland were demoted to League One and the repercussions are still being felt even now.

Concerned by the prospect of receiving a paltry compensation fee had Maja signed a pre-contract with the Ligue 1 side, Sunderland opted to sell at a price still massively below his true worth.

Factoring in the ultimate cost of replacing him and missing out on promotion, it’s a decision which has backfired.

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Ross had also floated the prospect of loaning him back after a January sale, and would subsequently criticise the lack of planning heading into what proved to be a pivotal window.


Lee Cattermole (Mutual agreement)

Sunderland and Cattermole reached an agreement that essentially saw a portion of the costs of the midfielder’s contract staggered over a longer period of time.

It was a decision that Ross was ultimately satisfied with, eager to bring a better balance to his squad in terms of its profile.

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His absence would prove to be keenly felt for much of the current campaign, though George Dobson and Max Power have more recently established something of a settled partnership.

Cattermole himself has confirmed that he is eyeing a return to English football after a largely successful campaign at VVV-Venlo.

A failure to win promotion back to the Championship was always going to lead to some significant financial considerations, but a failure to go one better thus far underlined the challenges of replacing players of this calibre.

Bryan Oviedo (Mutual agreement)

Similarly, Oviedo reached an agreement on his contract before joining FC Copenhagen.

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Oviedo’s contribution to the previous campaign had been significantly less than Cattermole’s, so much so that Ross often favoured Reece James or Denver Hume ahead of him.

His departure did not attract the same level of attention as some others but his departure means he remains one of the biggest losses Sunderland have made in their modern history.

Reece James (Doncaster Rovers, undisclosed fee)

Sunderland were protected financially by the decision to extend James’ contract for another year shortly before he moved to Doncaster Rovers, where he has been a regular for Darren Moore

At Sunderland, the faith shown in Denver Hume eventually paid off, but it was clear in the early stages of the season that the dependable and perhaps underrated James was missed.

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Ross stressed at the time that the uncertainty regarding Oviedo’s future was key in sanctioning the deal.

Adam Matthews (Released)

One of the few players still on a contract signed in the Premier League era, Matthews’ departure was inevitable when Sunderland were defeated at Wembley.

His quality was missed in the early stages of the campaign when right-back was very much a problem position, but Luke O’Nien’s form at right wing-back in recent months has made his absence less obvious.

Donald Love (Mutual agreement)

Having failed to breakthrough, Love was another who left on a free transfer.

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He subsequently joined Shrewsbury Town, where he has been a regular in the 3-5-2 system favoured by manager Sam Ricketts.

George Honeyman (Hull City, £400,000 est.)

With just one year left on his deal and with the midfield department

As a player, Honeyman could divide opinion but his all-round contribution and endeavour was never in question.

That presence has been missed this campaign and though he has not been a regular under Grant McCann at Hull City, the circumstances meant that the fee Sunderland received was not as significant as it might have been.

Glenn Loovens (Mutual agreement)

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Having not featured at all in 2020, Sunderland came to an arrangement that saw Loovens released from his contract almost a year early.

Jack Baldwin (Salford City, loan)

Baldwin was one of the players signed for a fee last summer and was one who the club hoped would grow with them through the divisions.

Having identified defensive frailties as a key issue last season, Ross ultimately told him he was free to find a new club if he wanted too.

A superb showing against Burnley in the Carabao Cup was a reminder of his undoubted talent, but injury has curtailed his progress after a surprise loan switch to Salford City.

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As it stands, he seems certain to leave on a free this summer.


Dylan McGeouch (Aberdeen, nominal fee)

With both player and manager convinced he could prove himself this season, McGeouch opted to extend his deal for another campaign.

With McGeouch firmly out of favour under new manager Phil Parkinson, his January exit seemed an inevitability and Aberdeen swooped quickly for a player they had long coveted.

Aiden McGeady (Charlton Athletic, loan)

Having extended McGeady’s contract last summer, his future is likely to be an issue for the Black Cats should he return from his loan at Charlton this summer.


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Surveying the departues of the last two years serves as a reminder of the ruinious legacy left by Sunderland’s dramatic descent through the footballing pyramid.

Even now, the process is not fully completed.

It also serves as a reminder of the importance of recruiting well at this level, with sales key in creating room for reinvestment in lieu of major injections from owners.

The importance of that is likely only to grow in the changing climate football is currently facing.

Sunderland do have some key assets in their current squad, though Jon McLaughlin’s future remains uncertain with his contract impasse continuing.

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Denver Hume has proved himself one of the most dangerous attacking full-backs in the division this season, while Jordan Willis and Luke O’Nien have done much to plot the way forward for the recruitment department.

Their athleticism, attitude and room for growth at Sunderland have been a refreshing change.

The landscape in the EFL is changing rapidly, and the downward pressure on wages and transfer fees is likely to be significant. Salary caps of a more stringent nature seem likely.

Clubs like Sunderland will feel their large fanbases could give them an advantage in the market, but smart scouting will be more important than ever, whoever owns the club.