Stoke City used to be a source of terrace banter for Sunderland fans... but that joke isn’t quite so funny anymore.
Whenever Sunderland needed to offload one of those players who had participated in the early stages of Premier League survival and were subsequently considered beneath them, Stoke came along with an open cheque book.
Stoke have overtaken them and are now streaks ahead when it comes to their current weight category in the top flight
Danny Collins, Danny Higginbotham, Dean Whitehead, Kenwyne Jones and Rory Delap all headed to the Britannia Stadium, and oh, how everyone chuckled. “All our **** players, we sell them to Stoke” was the ceaseless chant on visits to the Britannia Stadium.
No-one’s singing it now.
Stoke’s £12million club record signing of highly-coveted winger Xherden Shaqiri from Inter Milan this week – admittedly after he had rejected their advances earlier in the summer – reiterated how a previously unfashionable club has become in vogue under Mark Hughes.
Europe’s elite players no longer see Stoke as beneath them, or being shackled by the one-dimensional system previously favoured by Tony Pulis. It’s a club very much on the up.
But why, oh why, have Stoke made such giant strides in establishing themselves as a top half of the table fixture, when Sunderland are perennially battling to be the least worst team in the Premier League?
That’s the depressing reality. Regardless of Sunderland’s superior fan-base, history, facilities and potential, Stoke have overtaken them and are now streets ahead when it comes to their current weight category in the top flight.
One obvious factor is that Stoke’s transfer activity over the last two or three seasons has been far superior, and that’s not necessarily been due to a heftier transfer budget.
In Mame Biram Diouf, Charlie Adam, Bojan and Shaqiri, Stoke brought in players who immediately improved the quality in their ranks. Sunderland haven’t. There have been far too many signings who have been no better than the ones who have departed ... and yes, most recently in the case of Phil Bardsley, to the Britannia.
Sunderland’s loan signings have been better than their permanent additions, yet even in that area, Stoke landed Victor Moses last season.
Why Gus Poyet didn’t fancy a loan move for Moses 12 months ago – when Sunderland had been one of the sides in the running – remains utterly baffling.
Clearly, geography is a factor in the upturn of players joining Stoke, with the bright lights of Manchester and the leafy, footballer enclaves of Cheshire within spitting distance. As previous Sunderland managers have admitted, don’t underestimate the task of attracting big-money buys to the North East.
The merry-go-round of head coaches/managers is also to blame. While Pulis and now Hughes have been blessed by time to breathe, address and improve, Sunderland have been dominated by the sticking-plaster solution in the dug-out.
The harrowing statistic that Dick Advocaat is bidding to become the first Sunderland boss to complete a whole season since Steve Bruce in 2010-11 tells a painful story of why the Black Cats have stagnated and even regressed.
But there is also an issue of the club’s structure.
Stoke’s recruitment and scouting system is now so slick that they are able to plan two or three windows in advance for new recruits.
The constant fire-fighting at Sunderland barely gives Lee Congerton chance to plan two weeks ahead.
Admittedly, Stoke’s academy system can hardly boast to any towering success stories, yet mid-table peers Swansea and Southampton – who have similarly overtaken Sunderland in their recent progress – have created a homegrown conveyor belt.
Both put plans in place four or five years ago to ensure there was a pathway for academy graduates to get into the first-team, and are now reaping the rewards.
In fairness to Lee Congerton, these are not problems of his making and he is desperately trying to address them by gradually changing Sunderland’s blueprint, regarding scouting, recruitment, youth structure and homegrown development.
It has been some baptism of fire during Congerton’s 18 months as Sunderland’s sporting director too; where the pressing problems of Premier League survival have dominated the agenda.
It will take time – lots of it, maybe two or three years – before there are signs of progress, during which Sunderland will just have to hope they can keep scrambling to survival.
One summer was not going to change that, even if Dick Advocaat did come back. Neither was the result on the opening day of the season.
The need to make up lost ground is not going to happen overnight.