Quality is the key for Sunderland’s Martin O’Neill

Adam Johnson.
Adam Johnson.
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Sunderland’s priority in the transfer market this summer has always been quality rather than quantity.

Having seen Steve Bruce’s revolving door strategy fail to reap rewards, Black Cats owner Ellis Short took little persuading when Martin O’Neill recommended that Sunderland invest more selectively during the first chance to put his stamp on the squad.

But on a whirlwind day on Wearside, Sunderland made two signings that are genuinely game-changing.

Yesterday was arguably the most dramatic 24 hours in Sunderland’s transfer history, certainly the busiest since Peter Reid rolled the dice with the £10million deadline day double deal for Tore Andre Flo and Marcus Stewart.

Finishing back in the top half of the table will remain Sunderland’s modest goal for the campaign, but in Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson, the Black Cats have made an investment which can see them legitimately set their sights higher.

Short’s financial outlay at the Stadium of Light has been significant, yet this is unmistakeably a statement of his aspirations and his faith in O’Neill.

The double deal will not leave Sunderland with much change out of £30million. Technically, Sunderland have splashed out around £22m on transfer fees, but both players will have had significant signing-on fees – particularly Johnson after leaving behind his £80,000 per week contract at Manchester City.

While Johnson’s deal at the Stadium of Light will be short of that figure, the England international will no doubt have been handsomely compensated for his decision to shrug off interest from Spurs and join the club who had been chasing him for the best part of three years.

Only now can the significance of shedding 18 players from the wage bill be seen. Sunderland were dogged in shedding the also-rans from the balance sheet so they could make the kind of investment sorely needed in the Black Cats’ attack.

And in Fletcher and Johnson, Sunderland’s forward line now immediately looks a different proposition.

Fletcher and Louis Saha are both proven Premier League finishers and address the obvious deficiency in Sunderland’s line-up since Darren Bent, Danny Welbeck and Asamoah Gyan headed to the exit in quick succession.

It may have become a tiresome saga, but Fletcher was always the player O’Neill wanted and after a £12m deal was finally agreed, the 25-year-old should become the figurehead of Sunderland’s forward line.

The Scotland international fulfils the remit of a powerful targetman, strong in the air, good on the deck and with an eye for goal.

But while Fletcher has always been on the agenda this summer, it is the surprisingly swiftly signed and sealed deal for Johnson which gives Sunderland an extra dimension and will leave supporters salivating.

The fact that Sunderland’s club website crashed in the moments after Johnson’s signing spoke volumes over how this will be received on Wearside.

No longer is Stephane Sessegnon relied upon as Sunderland’s sole source of creativity. With James McClean and Johnson now occupying the two slots out wide, O’Neill has a multi-pronged threat at his disposal.

Landing another winger this summer always fell a close second to O’Neill’s striker search, with Junior Hoilett and Aiden McGeady both bleeping on the radar.

But deep down, Johnson is the one Sunderland have always wanted.

The Easington-born man only signed a new deal at the Etihad last November, but had grown frustrated at being a bit-part figure, restricted to a 20-minute or so run-out from the bench.

The final straw for Johnson was missing out on a second successive international tournament and he knew his already difficult relationship with Roberto Mancini needed to reach a conclusion.

For Sunderland, it is the end of a long road with Johnson – even longer than the one which saw them bid and bid again for Fletcher.

Johnson was not necessarily on the verge of joining Sunderland in January 2010 – the then Middlesbrough wideman was keeping an open mind over his future and when City blew away the Wearsiders’ contract offer, it was almost a no-brainer.

Since then, Sunderland have been linked with a loan move for Johnson in almost every transfer window, only to ultimately pull off the ultimate deal and sign the 25-year-old on a permanent contract.

A full-back is still on O’Neill’s wishlist during the final week of the window.

But the main pieces of O’Neill’s jigsaw are now in place.

Sunderland’s line-up will bear a striking resemblance to the system O’Neill employed at Aston Villa – two quality internationals on the flanks, a powerful striker up front and a solid central midfield and back four.

That Villa side secured three successive top six finishes.

Fletcher and Johnson now give Sunderland genuine long-term hope of mirroring that position.


Chris Young