IT’S BECOMING quite some baptism of fire for Lee Congerton.
Less than six months into the job and the Black Cats sporting director has both the masses of supporters and Gus Poyet turning up the heat for new signings.
No matter how hard Congerton is working, how many bids are in for players (and there are several currently lodged) or how ambitious the club’s targets are, he will be judged on those who actually come through the doors.
That has not been easy this summer.
The prices in the British market have been a big enough obstacle for Congerton to overcome.
But he has also faced the problem of adding both quantity and quality from the very short shortlist compiled by Poyet.
Four signings already over the line would have been a more than reasonable tally by this stage of the summer in any other year.
But such is Sunderland’s need for a total of around 10 fresh faces, that the gaping holes remaining in the squad have propelled hundreds of supporters into social media meltdown.
Congerton doesn’t need reminding about the need for further recruitment.
The first phrase invariably muttered by any fan out here who has or hasn’t reached double figures in the tally of pints of Super Bock is: “When are we going to sign anyone?”
Sunderland require both competition for places and those two or three players who would add real quality to the starting XI.
But setting aside the clear need for four or five new signings, whoever Sunderland land over the next two-and-a-bit weeks, the starting line-up on the opening day at West Brom won’t be vastly different from the one which started against CD Nacional last night.
This was the strongest side Poyet had named so far during pre-season.
At least seven of the XI who participated in Sunderland’s 1-0 defeat last night will surely run out of the tunnel at The Hawthorns.
The back four will already be working together on the training ground as a defensive unit, Adam Johnson and Lee Cattermole – presuming the ankle injury which forced the latter off last night is minor – were key figures in the Great Escape and either Steven Fletcher or Connor Wickham will surely start the season as Sunderland’s main striker ahead of Jozy Altidore.
The big question mark will be whether Costel Pantilimon, who started last night, or Vito Mannone lines up in goal as Poyet’s first-choice stopper.
It’s only really Emanuele Giaccherini, Jordi Gomez and the absent Seb Larsson whose places may depend on Congerton’s efforts in the market.
With the core of the side in place, there are some encouraging signs.
Sunderland are gradually looking sharper and slicker as the pre-season campaign goes on and they spent the bulk of last night’s encounter camped in the Nacional half.
They kept possession relatively well, hit the by-line regularly and never looked in any danger defensively, with new-boy Patrick van Aanholt evidently offering a lightning quick outlet at left-back.
For much of the first half, in particular, Gomez and Giaccherini were largely able to manipulate proceedings.
Most importantly, seeing six players complete the entire encounter and a further three compete for more than 70 minutes will have been heartening for Poyet from a fitness point of view.
The only problem was an age-old one for Sunderland – creating clear-cut opportunities.
There were half chances, but that was all.
Early on, Wickham, deployed on the left flank with Fletcher down the middle, headed straight at the keeper from 10 yards after meeting Billy Jones’s right-wing cross.
The right-back then went close himself midway through the first half after the sharp Johnson burst down the outside of the Nacional left-back and pulled it back from the right-hand by-line.
Jones got an angled right-footed shot away which Nacional stopper Gottardi blocked before the defence managed to scramble it away.
Sunderland’s best opportunity came three minutes before the interval when Fletcher sent Wickham through on goal with an inch-perfect slide-rule pass.
Wickham hit a left-footed shot across goal which Gottardi just managed to palm behind.
The England Under-21 striker had another chance early in the second half when Johnson played him through, but he opted to cross, rather than unleash a shot, and the ball was blocked in a crowded six-yard box.
After that, the game descended into typical pre-season fare.
Nacional gradually looked a tad more threatening, while Sunderland’s main outlet was half-time substitute Charis Mavrias, despite the Greek being deployed as a makeshift right-back.
Mavrias has looked bright and desperate to impress throughout the friendly programme and he caused Nacional problems with his overlapping runs.
He may just be one of Roberto De Fanti’s signings who bears fruit in the long-term if he can find more consistency with his final ball.
But the Greek couldn’t help Sunderland to what would have been a fifth successive friendly victory.
Other than sending a routine cross-cum-shot behind, Pantilimon had barely had anything to do.
But, with a minute to go, he was beaten when Sequeira delivered a cross from the left and Lucas netted on the volley.
Not that it was a worry for Poyet afterwards.
As planned, the minutes are racking up for his side, with the heat far more on Congerton’s end of proceedings.
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Jones (Mavrias 46), O’Shea, Brown, van Aanholt (Roberge 82), Cattermole (Bridcutt 61), Gomez, Giaccherini (Ba 80), Johnson (N’Diaye 75), Fletcher, Wickham. Sub not used: Mannone.
CD NACIONAL: Gottardi, Zainadine, Miguel, Ezzat, Marcal, Aly Ghazal, Ayala, Gomaa, Mario Rondon, Suk, Marco Matia.