Sad loss, so Sunderland must be bold now and rebuild

Jordan Henderson and Glen Johnson in action at the Stadium of Light.
Jordan Henderson and Glen Johnson in action at the Stadium of Light.
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JORDAN Henderson’s sale to Liverpool marks one of those high water marks in Sunderland’s history which people tend to remember for a long time.

And not necessarily in a good way.

Like the sales of Michael Bridges in the 90s, Nick Pickering and Barry Venison in the 80s, all the way back to Colin Todd in the 60s, it continues a tendency to sell the best of home-grown talent to clubs perceived of as bigger, more ambitious or just plain wealthier.

The blow has been softened by a fee of, potentially, near £20million, which at least makes the decision to cash in on the England Under-21 man look reasonably solid in business terms.

It is a huge amount of money for a player whose real worth still divides many Sunderland fans.

Many supporters were unconvinced that Henderson justified the hype – they were perhaps looking for more in the way of silky skills, blistering pace or spectacular goals.

But Liverpool don’t shell out £20m on speculative punts and Kenny Dalglish was fully aware that every top club in the Premier League was pondering a move for the Sunderland midfielder.

The Anfield manager didn’t want to run the risk of Henderson’s precocious talents coming to full fruition in the European Under-21 Championship finals this month – something which would have pushed up his price and possibly have started a bidding war.

So he has acted decisively and will sleep soundly this weekend knowing he has secured a model professional, one of England’s brightest rising stars and a player who is only going to get better.

At 20, Henderson already has more than 50 Premier League games under his belt and in two, three or four years time will have the experience and confidence to be making all the difference in games.

He can expect to be at the top for the next decade and if that proves to be the case, then that £20m averages out at £2m a season – not bad business at all for a player Daglish believes is going all the way to the top.

So what of Sunderland?

Dress it up which ever way you want, there’s no getting away from the fact that in consecutive transfer windows the Black Cats have sold their best player.

And that’s the sign of a selling club – clubs which struggle to progress because they are always chasing to replace their star men.

Darren Bent – like Bridges, Venison and Pickering before him – wanted to move on.

Henderson did not push to go.

But the upshot is the same and, like all those players before him, Henderson will leave a gap in the squad that will be hard to fill.

Only how much and how wisely Sunderland spend this summer will determine whether the club’s fans will enter the new season feeling Henderson’s sale was a necessary evil – an undesirable but unavoidable part of the rebuilding process, or an admission of the club’s limitations.

In PR terms, Sunderland have handled the situation as best they can.

Chairman Niall Quinn was quick to point out on satellite television that firm targets had been identified.

And news that the club were pursuing three Manchester United players has also helped. Today’s story that the club is closing in on one of Asia’s best young players is also heartening.

But the proof will be in the pudding – in exactly who Sunderland do bring in this summer, rather than who they target.

On that criteria alone will Sunderland be judged over Henderson’s departure.

The expected arrivals of Keiren Westwood and Seb Larsson will undoubtedly help improve Sunderland’s squad, but they are soldiers rather than star buys.

Charles N’Zogbia is the player that Sunderland really need to secure if Steve Bruce’s squad is to be given an extra dimension.

But they are still a long way off meeting the Frenchman’s pay demands as things stand. That’s a bridge Sunderland will need to cross if they are going to secure a player who can genuinely take them forward.

Beyond that, half-a-dozen new signings are needed and although it may be unfair on the striker himself – the acquisition of players of the calibre of David Ngog, given his record so far for Liverpool, has not got the pulses of Sunderland fans racing.

What is clear is that unless Sunderland spend ambitiously this summer – which includes the £20m for Henderson and £24m for Bent and more; unless there’s an undeniable influx of genuine quality, unless the squad is clearly stronger in August than it was in May, Henderson’s sale might come to be regarded as the moment where Sunderland acknowledged they knew their place in the Premier League pecking order.

For the moment though, Sunderland fans will trust in Niall Quinn and Steve Bruce to ensure this is one step backward so the club can take two steps forward.