The inside story of Sunderland's summer window and what it tells us about the Black Cats
There were five weeks between Patrick Bauer’s fateful intervention at Wembley and the start of Sunderland’s significant summer business.
There had been little news out of a club still coming to terms with that brutal defeat, and deep in talks over a potential change of ownership structure.
Conor McLaughlin’s arrival on a free after his release from Millwall signalled that the wheels were very much in motion again.
Later that day, Lee Cattermole’s ten-year stay at the club was brought to an end by a mutual consent.
They were two moves that revealed much about the work that Sunderland were looking to do….
AN UNCERTAIN START
The early days of the summer were marked by a lot of speculation, but little movement.
Sunderland were linked with a number of potentially expensive acquisitions, including Stewart Downing, John Marquis and, of course, Marcus Maddison.
At one stage, they were claimed to be locked in a bidding war for Plymouth Argyle’s Freddie Ladapo.
The Black Cats, though, were yet to make a concrete offer to a player.
There were a couple of reasons for that.
One, Ross and his team were still establishing their targets and planning for a new campaign. Secondly, talks with Mark Campbell were continuing and a successful resolution to those could have turned recruitment on its head.
Stewart Donald had insisted that the talks would not prevent potential business being done and of course that was true.
An exit for Reece James was sanctioned as Doncaster Rovers moved quickly to replace Danny Andrew. Ross was determined not to repeat the issue he had to manage the previous campaign, carrying three talented left-backs at once. Bryan Oviedo’s future remained uncertain and he had been stung a year previous, when the Costa Rican had surprisingly failed to attract a move away.
It was true, also, that a change of structure would not have made a significant change to the playing budget.
Campbell, though, had ambitious (you could say fanciful) recruitment plans and it was clear that they would be driven by former Celtic Director of Football John Park.
Where Ross and Tony Coton stood in that picture was unclear.
Consider this small vignette as an example. Park and Campbell, the latter has subsequently admitted, were very keen on striking a deal for free-scoring Lawrence Shankland.
A cursory glance at his past record throws up an issue, however. Shankland played for Ross at St Mirren, but only for a matter of months. His loan was brought to an early end as Ross overhauled his struggling squad in the January window.
For a myriad of reasons, Sunderland decided against going ahead with the Campbell deal. Donald insisted that it had never been as close as reported.
It was July 9th that Charlie Methven publicly confirmed in an interview with A Love Supreme that the deal was dead, saying that the club would get on with the job in hand.
Regardless, the clarity that Ross now had allowed him to begin making his significant moves, of which McLaughlin had been the first.
THE PLAN EXPLAINED
Ross made one further addition before his first detailed public comments since the Charlton Athletic defeat, adding Lee Burge to his goalkeeping ranks.
On July 10th he outlined his strategy in the transfer market and what he hoped to add to his squad.
A crucial factor was improving a defence that he felt was ultimately the main reason why his side had fallen short.
Improving their tally of clean sheets was crucial, but it was also about finding the consistency that would allow him to establish settled partnerships.
It was clear that this was one area where the eventual top four had enjoyed a significant advantage over the Black Cats throughout the campaign. It was no coincidence that all the teams that finished above Sunderland would go on to sell defenders up the pyramid for significant fees.
Of course, improving the side’s defensive output was not just about personnel, but making improvements throughout the spine of the side.
To that end, Ross identified increased athleticism as a crucial attribute he hoped to secure.
The Black Cats boss also explained the balancing act he would have to manage throughout the summer.
Sunderland had a ‘one in, one out’ policy to ensure their squad did not become overly bloated.
The comments raised eyebrows but at that stage Sunderland were still carrying a large squad, and there was a determination to ensure young players like Elliot Embleton and Ethan Robson had every chance to stake their claim.
It was not an exact science, with players sometimes arriving before an exit, but at the end of the window they stayed true to that plan.
They have signed seven senior players, and moved on eight who were part of the squad last season.
A BIG FORTNIGHT
At that stage there were a number of unanswered questions, but a significant fortnight for the Sunderland boss went a long way to answering them.
Donald Love left for Shrewsbury, a mutual agreement bringing his Sunderland tenure to an early end.
That allowed the club to get a deal for their primary defensive target over the line within days.
Jordan Willis had been a key target for Ross, a player who had caught his eye as Coventry City enjoyed an impressive campaign.
Pace, athleticism, aerial ability. A bargain deal, with significant potential to grow his value. Glowing references as to his character and attitude.
This was exactly the kind of deal Ross wanted to make.
The issue was that there was Championship interest, and for a good while Sunderland did not expect to be successful.
It was a major boost that they were and Ross went a long way to completing his incoming business a week before the season began.
Marc McNulty represented something of a no-brainer for the Black Cats boss.
He was a talented player that Ross had first admired when breaking through at Livingston. His lower league record was very good, and Ross knew his personality was perfect for the demands of being a forward player at the Stadium of Light.
He had been a potential target to replace Josh Maja in January, but Ross had concerns over his match fitness after a long spell on the sidelines at Reading.
McNulty went to Hibernian and sparkled, paving the way for a summer move when it was made clear to the Scot that he had no future under Reading boss Jose Gomes.
The following day, Ross landed one of his other key targets.
When he arrived on Wearside a summer previous, Ross has been candid in admitting that his knowledge of the lower divisions in England was limited.
A season in charge had changed that and a number of players caught his eye.
Willis was one, and Dobson was another.
The Dobson deal took a while to get over the line as Sunderland had at the time seemed overloaded in central midfield.
Talks over the 21-year-old took place as debate raged over the future of Dylan McGeouch, who was a key summer target for Aberdeen.
Ross pushed firmly for both to be part of his squad.
He felt McGeouch would be better for his often promising and often frustrating first season, and while Dobson had played most of the previous campaign in the same holding midfield role for Walsall, Ross was determined to unlock his potential in a more aggressive role.
Again, Dobson fitted the model.
Young but with significant first team experience, a strong character and real athleticism.
Dobson’s arrival was offset early in August when George Honeyman left for Hull City.
The deal developed with surprising pace but that perhaps reflected the sense it made to all involved.
Ross had a host of midfield options, and Honeyman had only a year left on his deal.
Under Grant McCann, Hull would play the kind of pressing game that would suit the energetic midfielder.
Ross was a big fan of the midfielder, and defended him fiercely though what he felt was unfair criticism in the previous campaign.
He embodied the culture he had worked hard to instill at the Academy of Light, but financially it made sense.
Having agreed a deal to allow Bryan Oviedo to leave days previous, Sunderland had now let go every player other than Duncan Watmore who had signed their current deals in the Premier League era.
That was in essence the story of this window.
Rebalancing the squad, achieving a greater equilibrium in finance and profile, while trying to address key deficiencies from the previous campaign.
Ideally Ross would no doubt have been happy to keep Honeyman but generally speaking, he was more than comfortable with the decision to move on other higher earners.
Firstly, he recognised the financial realities of the situation, while he also felt a more balanced squad was important for the club.
When asked before the play-offs what Luton Town and Barnsley had that Sunderland did not, Ross pointed ot the consistency of their recruitment and and the consistent profile of players they possesses.
That continuity was something he wanted to improve on Wearside.
In adding Joel Lynch and Laurens De Bock, Ross addressed two key areas he needed to strengthen in the closing stages of the window.
The seven players who arrived this summer reflected the club’s approach to the window.
A balancing act between bringing in the quality and experience needed to push for promotion, and recruiting players who can improve over a period of time.
Against Burnley, Ross fielded five players aged 23 or under.
Three were academy products, while Luke O’Nien and George Dobson were examples of the kind of players he feels the club should be targeting.
Debate may continue over where O’Nien should play but Ross would mark him out as a major transfer success.
He was signed for a low fee, improved due to coaching on the training ground and his exemplary attitude. Had they chosen to sell him to a Championship club in the summer, they could have made a significant profit. Instead, they will look to keep improving him and growing his potential.
Willis and Dobson were signed with a similar logic at play, as well as the belief that their athleticism would improve the side.
The defeat to Peterborough United led to renewed calls for further recruitment, but after that Carabao Cup win Ross felt he has strengthened his squad from last season.
He has two options for every position, and has a better balance and athleticism in the players he can call upon.
Whether it is enough to win promotion, only time will tell.