Phil Smith: Reflecting on Jon McLaughlin's disappointing depature and the questions it raises for Sunderland
COMMENT: Sunderland suffered a major blow on Tuesday when Jon McLaughlin signed a two-year deal at Rangers. Phil Smith reflects on a story a year in the making, and assesses what could and could not have been done differently
High quality, low maintenance.
That was how Jack Ross described Jon McLaughlin, one of his first and perhaps his best signing as Sunderland boss.
All who crossed paths with the goalkeeper would recognise that description and it aptly sums up what the Black Cats have lost, and what Rangers have gained.
Ross was not one for hyperbole and so it was not for nothing that after a crucial win over Portsmouth in the early stages of last season, he described him as the best goalkeeper in the league.
It had not been a performance of standout or flash saves.
McLaughlin, with the pressure on and with a narrow lead to protect, had commanded his box and spread calm around the Stadium of Light.
It would be the same just days later, another vital 2-1 win, this time away at Rochdale.
Consistent, dependable, calming.
High quality, low maintenance.
It’s those memories in mind that made it feel like such a bitter blow to see McLaughlin already sporting the Rangers kit, posing at Ibrox as he gears up for the next stage of his career.
Those pictures perhaps served to underline that even if the destination was not entirely clear, this departure felt all but sealed for some time.
It underlined that Sunderland’s attempts to keep him in the last fortnight were almost certainly destined to fail.
In one sense, it’s a straightforward footballing story, a price paid for falling short on the pitch.
Particularly in the current climate, League One Sunderland could not compete financially with the other options on the table.
McLaughlin steps up to one of the biggest clubs in the UK, to play for a legendary figure in the game, strengthen his international claims and for the first time, potentially play in European club competition.
It is not where Sunderland want to be, where they should be, or where they want to be again.
But it is where they are and most acknowledge that when considering the decision the Scot has made.
In the current climate, the Black Cats are also relatively well placed.
They have an experienced League One goalkeeper who has performed well when called upon thus far, and a promising youngster now signed to new terms.
The last year nevertheless is worth reflecting upon, another impasse that has seen an asset leave with little financial return, raising more questions about long-term planning and strategy.
It is true that McLaughlin has often moved clubs at the end of a contract.
This will frame much debate but in truth, it simply tells the story of good decisions made at the right time.
McLaughlin’s career has been one of consistent and targeted progression.
It has certainly not been all about finances. If that was the case, he would have taken a more lucrative deal than the one on the table at Sunderland when he left Hearts with his stock high two summers ago.
It’s also the case that McLaughlin consistently stressed that he wanted this to be different.
“I’ve moved around plenty before, for myself and the family, that’s not easy,” he said in July.
“We made this move because we felt it was somewhere we could potentially stay for the rest of my career, and help ride this wave back up to the very top.”
He was happy and keen to settle.
His family loved the area, he loved the club.
The goal from day one was to move through the divisions with it.
Given the way he has carried himself in the two years since joining, there is little cause to doubt his sincerity.
So why hasn’t it happened?
Clearly, Sunderland’s failure to escape the third tier is the single greatest factor, but the way the situation developed over the last year has surely not helped.
The Black Cats first looked into the prospect of a new deal last summer, following McLaughlin’s stellar first campaign on Wearside. In those first months of life in League One, the excellence of himself in one box, and Josh Maja in the other, had proved defining in so many games.
There has been much said about those initial discussions and there may well be more to say, so for now perhaps the simplest thing to say is that the two parties were apart.
There is nothing particularly controversial in that fact itself, something that happens at every club on a regular basis.
What was surprising was to see McLaughlin’s agent implicitly criticised by Stewart Donald in an appearance on the Roker Rapport podcast.
Donald did not go into specifics about the talks but called for greater ‘realism’ and made reference to discussions over a clause which could see the goalkeeper leave on a free if promotion was not secured.
Sunderland’s aversion to that was as obvious as it was sensible, but to air it publicly was a questionable move just months after the unsatisfactory saga over Josh Maja.
Put yourself in McLaughlin and his camp’s shoes, for a moment, too.
Sunderland had come to them to talk terms.
They had put forward their thoughts, in the context that the club had publicly described him as a multi-million pound asset (worth as much as £5 million, they had suggested).
They were bullishly talking of rejecting Championship interest, so would that not be reflected when talking of a new deal?
And yes, he was a well-paid goalkeeper in League One, but by no means was he a top earner in his own dressing room.
The club were of course entitled to take their own view and what they deemed to be the right offer and the right terms.
At that stage, they decided they had not reached it. In that there was nothing dramatic.
The issue was that it had been an unsettling episode.
Ross felt moved to publicly defend his goalkeeper, to stress that any breakdown in talks had not been his fault or due to unrealistic demands on his own part.
So soon after having to regularly defend Maja in similar circumstances, it did not reflect well on Sunderland’s management of contract negotiations.
McLaughlin’s form on the pitch was not where it once was. There were myriad reasons why improved defensive statistics on the previous season were frustratingly not leading to clean sheets. It was a point Ross made before his departure and it was true for a time after it, too. McLaughlin was visibly under less pressure under games and yet in terms of the goals conceded tally, not much was changing.
There were plenty of errors from throughout the team but there were some from the Scot, too.
At 31 and with hundreds of senior appearances under his belt, the Scot would not look to make the contract impasse an excuse.
He did concede in January, though, that the speculation had been ‘difficult’ and this perhaps is a point worth considering.
A position of absolute strength for the club had become one of uncertainty in a matter of months.
If the two parties were apart in their views on a deal, then that is something that can happen at any club, anytime.
How this panned out suited nobody, and it certainly did not help Sunderland’s cause in trying to climb the table.
That January admission felt like something of a sliding doors moment.
Above all else, because Donald had said in August that he would revisit the situation in the next week, that he was ‘confident’ about the direction of travel.
Just under four months on, McLaughlin said it had ‘gone quiet’.
A new deal has never seemed likely since.
McLaughlin, by that point, had reclaimed his spot in the team and his form with it.
As Sunderland began to gather a head of steam on the pitch, the goalkeeper was a part of it and his relationship with Phil Parkinson was good.
Parkinson pushed to try and keep the goalkeeper in recent weeks and talks between himself and those close to the player were respectful and positive.
The reality was that by that stage, a resolution was unlikely in the extreme.
The contract offered just weeks before expiration, and in the current climate, was never likely to compete with what would be on offer elsewhere.
As such, he leaves with plenty of goodwill and plenty of respect for two seasons of general excellence.
That he leaves with the promotion not secured, and with no income for Sunderland, is a source of frustration.
Such stories are always complex, but the tale is one of the kind we have seen too often.
Absolutely, Sunderland’s continued absence from the top-two tiers leaves them vulnerable and in a weak position when these situations arise.
It’s why there was consistent interest from the Championship throughout his time here.
Aside from a short spell this season, there was a constant gap between what he could realistically earn on Wearside and what he could earn elsewhere.
Until that changes, these conversations will remain difficult and those bridges not easy to cross.
Still, there is plenty to learn, and plenty to improve, when the best two players to wear the shirt since the new owners arrived have left to little sporting or financial benefit.