Assessing what's next for Sunderland and Aiden McGeady after Charlton's relegation heartbreak
As transfer announcements go, it was one of the more unusual and perhaps on reflection, one that might have set a few alarm bells ringing.
Sunderland supporters woke up on deadline day last January to discover that one of the day's key issues was already settled.
At half past midnight, Charlton Athletic announced that they had swooped to sign Aiden McGeady on loan.
Then chairman Matt Southall was said to want to show fans that he was 'working round the clock' to help Lee Bowyer strengthen his squad. Unusual, to put it mildly.
The story so far
What we didn't know then was that the ESI group who had recently taken the club over from Roland Duchatelet were yet to receive approval from the EFL, and as such, were operating under a transfer embargo.
A loan for McGeady in which the Black Cats were almost certainly picking up most of the tab following his unceremonious exclusion from the first-team squad was a deal they could do.
McGeady’s undoubted talent made it a gamble well, well worth taking.
Seven months on, the Addicks are in dire straits.
Businessman Paul Elliott completed a deal to end ESI's brief and acrimonious tenure but he too is still awaiting for approval from the EFL.
Having been relegated back to League One in a remarkable end to the campaign on Wednesday, the embargo remains in place and Bowyer's future is uncertain.
He has worked wonders since joining the club and to keep the side up this season would have beeen manager-of-the-year worthy work.
The off-pitch drama of the last two years looks to have taken its toll, though, and there are many admiring glances from other clubs.
Bowyer said today that he 'had never felt so low in his life'.
All of which means Sunderland's latest summer of great uncertainty will now almost certainly have yet another subplot.
If there had been any hope that Charlton would provide a neat solution for the McGeady conundrum by pursuing a permanent deal, then that looks to have been all but extinguished.
How we got here
Under Phil Parkinson it is clear that there will be no way back at Sunderland for McGeady.
After removing him from the first-team picture in December, Parkinson said that the decision was not due to any one specific incident, but went on to concede that he felt generally that the spirit fo the group could improve.
They were damning words and McGeady's time under Parkinson was done there and then.
Unsurprisingly, all sorts of rumours began to fill the void and that was probably unfair on the Irish winger. He has kept his counsel ever since, largely because he knew there was every chance this exact scenario could play out down the line.
He is settled in the region and under Jack Ross, he had found the stability and environment in which he clearly felt he could not only thrive, but act as something of a leader.
It was a combination of all of that that led to him extending his contract for another year last summer, and which made the speed with which his time at the club unravelled all the more surprising.
Having succeeded under Ross, McGeady also seemed to have few issues working with Bowyer, who praised his off-the-ball dilligence as Charlton battled the drop and also his work in getting back up to match fitness after his Sunderland exile.
McGeady's case on Wearside, of course, was not helped by the fact that the Black Cats began a strong run of form under Parkinson later that month.
A first-choice XI formed and settled, the front three began to press regularly and effectively, the group in general looked fitter and so the 34-year-old's outstanding individual quality did not seem to be quite so keenly missed.
The team's alarming dip in form just before the postponement of fixtures perhaps painted a more balanced picture.
Since the turn of the year, Sunderland's overall attacking output improved slightly but not dramatically, just as their points-per-game ratio did.
McGeady was clearly just one part of a far more complex story.
What lies ahead this summer
His likely return this summer will pose something of a headache for the club.
For one, the raft of summer departures from the squad means that we can say with some certainty that he will be one of, if not the top earners at the club.
Particularly in the current climate, it's a far from ideal scenario when every penny counts for clubs up and down the country.
In terms of the looming salary cap, his return is not necessarily a major issue for the club. In what seems certain to be the first campaign of the cap being enforced [with a vote on the matter expected to be held next week], any player already contracted to clubs will be measured not on their actual current wage but a calculated League One average.
In that sense, McGeady would be pushing the club no further to the cap than any of the 14 other senior players still contracted.
With the vast majority of those out of contract next summer, Sunderland's biggest consideration in terms of the cap what they offer players they are signing this summer.
Given that most will likely request two-year deals, the contracts handed out now will have a major impact on what the club could do next summer when the £2.5 million limit is enforced.
A more pressing issue is that the salary cap is also likely to mean a limit on squad sizes, which is set to start at 22 next season.
As it stands, McGeady's return would take Parkinson's squad up to 15. New contracts for Tom Flanagan and Brandon Taylor (should he part of the senior squad) would take the tally to 17 and leave the Sunderland boss with just five summer signings to play with.
As was the case in January, McGeady's contractual status means that he will hold the cards this summer.
Sunderland will no doubt entertain the prospect of another loan move, but it will be up to McGeady whether he chooses to do so again.
Finding a mutually beneficial solution will not be straightforward, and in truth, is yet another example of the consequences that come with such constant turnover at a football club.
Twelve months ago, that extension looked like good footballing sense. McGeady had repaid Ross’ faith with a string of excellent displays and goals. His stock at the club had never been higher, particularly after he battled through the pain barrier, attempting to haul the side over the line with a broken bone in his foot.
Now, it leaves Sunderland with something of an issue.
Parkinson will hope that, as in January, McGeady's undoubted talent means that at some stage this summer, there will be a club eager and willing to try and strike a deal.
On what terms, is the question.