SUNDERLAND will embark upon a new strategy in the transfer market this summer, as they look to land cost-effective Continental signings.
It is a route their neighbours Newcastle United have practised successfully over the last three years.
But, as CHRIS YOUNG argues, Sunderland must take note of the mistakes the Magpies have made with their recruitment philosophy.
THE WATERSHED moment for Ellis Short came in the rickety Loftus Road stand.
In almost five years at the Sunderland helm, the American had seen a procession of managers make demands on his purse, with only Steve Bruce able to stake any claim towards balancing the books after cashing in £40million for Darren Bent and Jordan Henderson.
At QPR in March, Short looked on and watched the latest £10m or so of his investment make a measly impression, as Sunderland were rolled over by the Premier League’s basement boys.
It wasn’t quite curtains for Martin O’Neill at that stage. The harrowing draw against 10-man Norwich eight days later was the result which prompted Short to examine a change in the dug-out.
But there would have been an inevitable flashpoint in the summer.
O’Neill, who had been frustrated by the lack of resources dedicated to him in January, wanted more in the close season to overhaul a squad that was still generally derived of Bruce signings.
Short was wary.
Sunderland have paid big money for big name, “established” Premier League players during his tenure, plus the never-to-be-overlooked bumper wage packets which accompany such recruits.
Some have come off, such as Bent and Steven Fletcher.
But there have been too many others that have been far less successful, yet still left a large blotch on the club’s balance sheet.
Short was keen to adopt a different approach, similar to the one Newcastle have practised over the last three years in concentrating on young Continental players available for cut-price fees and crucially, cut-price wages.
Would O’Neill, renowned for focusing on the domestic market, have worked under such parameters?
The appointment of Paolo Di Canio marked a new era in Sunderland’s recruitment ethos.
Even Di Canio’s job title of head coach indicated that Short was ready to adopt a more European model.
Di Canio’s arrival corresponded with the use of agent Roberto De Fanti as a consultant, with the Italian still to be officially confirmed as Sunderland’s new director of football.
While Di Canio has been focusing on Sunderland’s survival challenge, De Fanti has been identifying potential targets, with Maritimo centre-half Valentin Roberge expected to be the first of several overseas Bosman exports.
It is an arrangement which is not entirely foreign to Di Canio.
When he was in charge of Swindon, much of the initial groundwork in signings was carried out by Di Canio’s own agent, who worked in a consultancy role for the Robins.
All of this seems eminently sensible.
After six seasons in the Premier League, Sunderland have found themselves back to square one in fighting against relegation.
The big-money approach hasn’t worked, so why not try something different?
In an era of Fifa Fair Play and the self-imposed wage budget rise of just £4m of the new TV deal, Sunderland have to be prudent with their spending.
Targeting cash-strapped clubs or modestly-paid players throughout Europe is a viable avenue.
But while Sunderland are not blinkered to ignore the transfer success Newcastle have enjoyed, particularly in the French market, they need to be mindful of the mistakes made by their neighbours.
This time last summer, Magpies chief scout Graham Carr was being lauded as some sort of recruitment deity.
Carr had brought Yohan Cabaye, Cheik Tiote, Hatem Ben Arfa and Papiss Cisse to St James’s Park and all shone in Newcastle’s fifth-placed finish.
Twelve months on, it is a very different picture.
All of those quartet, other than perhaps Cisse, have underwhelmed this season as the Magpies mirrored Sunderland in plummeting towards the relegation zone.
Although there have been reasons for that – injuries, the demands of the Europa League and the question marks over Alan Pardew – no recruits are without flaws.
The big warning Sunderland must heed though is that the club needs to keep a domestic core.
Steven Taylor was the only British player in Newcastle’s starting line-up in the Tyne-Wear derby last month.
A round of January recruits from across the Channel initially paid off, but, when the tough got going, they crept into their shells.
The influx of predominantly French recruits prompted a storm of questions over cliques and internal tension last month.
Although Newcastle and Pardew have vehemently denied those claims, it cannot be healthy to have French as the prevalent nationality in the squad of an English club.
There is substance to the argument about needing a quota of home-grown doggedness to prevail in those scrappy, tightly-poised encounters in the Premier League.
Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City have all utilised the talent of overseas star names to take them to Premier League titles.
Yet all have relied upon the likes of John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Gareth Barry and James Milner too.
And while Sir Alex Ferguson has been happy to pay big bucks to land established internationals such as Robin van Persie, Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistlerooy, Manchester United have remained a home-based club.
At the heart of United’s success under Fergie has been academy graduates or those prised away from English clubs while still in their formative years, such as Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.
Although Sunderland are hardly challenging for the Premier League title, those clubs should be a model about how to strike a balance on recruitment.
Time will tell on the nature of Sunderland’s signings this summer, yet insiders expect the bulk of them to come from the Continent.
Di Canio’s eagerness to land Danny Rose though suggests Sunderland are not ignoring the domestic market.
Rose has personified that hunger, determination and willingness to put his body on the line which British-based players will always offer and is required in a brand of football that revolves around pace and power.
While the Spurs left-back may not have the twinkle-toes of a Stephane Sessegnon, he has a drive to get up and down the pitch which has shone in a team that was so lethargic under O’Neill.
Di Canio realises the benefits of disciplined, professional domestic players too.
Jack Colback and John O’Shea have been the two lauded by the Sunderland boss over the last few weeks, as he has derided those who fail to live up to those standards.
The likes of that pair, Lee Cattermole, Fletcher and potentially Rose must remain integral to Sunderland’s plans.
Otherwise the European experiment could easily become the foreign flop.