ARGUABLY the only area of Sunderland’s squad which doesn’t require reinforcements this summer is the bloated ranks of stoppers.
Yet, ironically, the goalkeeping dilemma will potentially consume more of Martin O’Neill’s grey matter than any new arrivals on Wearside, as he whittles down three custodians into two.
In an ideal world, O’Neill would relish the opportunity to continue boasting a trio of internationals scrapping for the one starting spot.
Yet Champions League outfits would struggle to keep harmony among such an array of options, let alone one labouring to achieve successive top-10 finishes.
Then there is the wage implication of keeping Simon Mignolet, Craig Gordon and Keiren Westwood at the Stadium of Light, particularly when the other departments of Sunderland’s squad are so clearly under-manned.
Gordon is the obvious sacrificial lamb.
He boasts one of the most lucrative salaries on Sunderland’s wage bill and, with his injury-stricken five-year contract expiring, provides a straightforward austerity measure.
But is it a foregone conclusion that Gordon will be released on a free transfer and Mignolet and Westwood will go head-to-head for the number one jersey?
Mignolet, fighting through welcoming supporters on the concourse at half-time to make his way to the players’ lounge, is the only member of the trio who can be said with any certainty to be staying on Wearside after notching 11 clean sheets in a campaign disrupted by an ugly facial injury which still bears scars on the Belgian’s nose.
The 24-year-old is the archetypal no-nonsense keeper, rarely flashy, yet capable of producing extraordinary stops. Consider that, other than an error of positioning against Newcastle, how many errors has Mignolet produced this season?
Westwood has hardly let Sunderland down either, confidently making the step up from the Championship and only losing his place at the turn of the year due to illness.
But after briefly fulfilling his Premier League ambitions, will the Republic of Ireland international be content with playing second fiddle to Mignolet?
Every player worth their mettle should answer that question “no” and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Westwood moves on and Gordon remains on Wearside.
Certainly, Gordon did his chances of earning a new Sunderland contract no harm on Saturday, even if he was beaten twice on his first competitive appearance in 14 months.
There were precious few signs of rust from the Scotland international and, other than a sliced clearance from John O’Shea’s hurried back pass after 60 seconds, little evidence of trepidation after such a sustained lay-off.
Gordon went about his business with quiet assurance, even if those in front of him lacked such composure prior to Kevin Davies’s opener as Sunderland surrendered possession cheaply and continued with the languid approach which has too often been present in the season’s finale.
When Bolton did break the deadlock, there was little Gordon could do about it – Fraizer Campbell and O’Shea giving Martin Petrov too much room to lift the ball to the far post and Davies allowed space to volley home.
What Sunderland would give for a centre-forward capable of attacking the back stick?
It’s no mystery why O’Neill was interested in him in January and could resurrect that interest this summer.
Gordon was able to demonstrate his agility in tipping David Ngog’s effort onto the bar, as Bolton countered from Nicklas Bendtner’s dreadfully careless blind pass, to ensure Sunderland remained on parity at the interval.
It was in the second half though where the former Hearts man really gave O’Neill food for thought in the late season assessment which the Black Cats boss has been promising for several weeks.
Gordon showed admirable awareness to block Chris Eagles’ cheeky effort to catch him at the near post four minutes after the break and then even more encouragingly, plucked Petrov’s soaring cross out of the sky on the hour mark under pressure from Davies and Ngog.
Again, there was little Gordon could do as Bolton found the net, even if Davies was just four yards out when he headed home the equaliser. There was too much pace on Sam Ricketts’ cross for the keeper to come and the fault lay entirely with the back four.
The defensive line was much too deep as Ricketts whipped in the inswinger from the left and Matt Kilgallon was badly exposed as Davies peeled away from the Sunderland centre-half.
It was not lost on O’Neill who, intentionally or not, turned his back on the former Sheffield United man after dragging him off.
Sunderland’s defence was again exposed in the final exchanges as Gordon twice came to the rescue – blocking Ivan Klasnic’s shot on the turn with an oustretched left leg and then clearing at the feet of the Croatia striker in stoppage time after a horrifying back pass from substitute Wayne Bridge.
As a belated audition under O’Neill, Gordon could have done little more.
Whether it is enough to earn a new contract at Sunderland, remains to be seen.
The suspicion lingers that the unpalatable exit of a £9million player for nothing will proceed, unless Westwood demonstrates any inclination to earn guaranteed first-team football elsewhere.
But Gordon at least gave O’Neill something to think about. It is surely an issue that will consume much of the Sunderland manager’s brain time in the coming weeks.