The story of Sunderland's Will Grigg pursuit, what Black Cats learned and why record spend makes sense
The clock is ticking ominously towards 11pm and Stewart Donald has a decision to make.
It has been a challenging week.
The Sunderland Chairman has been insistent that he will land two strikers before the window shuts.
Now he knows how much it is going to cost him.
The first one has been signed.
Finding a young striker to loan threw up a number of hurdles, but the contacts of Tony Coton have secured Kazaiah Sterling.
Donald feels it may not be enough.
He wants a proven goalscorer and though Jack Ross is not demanding it, far from it, he wants Will Grigg.
So the bid goes in.
Sunderland smash the League One transfer record in by far the biggest deal the new regime have sanctioned since their summer arrival.
It may have looked like a panic buy, and of course to some extent it was, but it was also one that made an awful lot of sense.
Sunderland’s interest in Grigg went all the way back to the summer and little wonder.
Assemble a squad capable of winning promotion from League One and Grigg would be top of the list every time.
His last four seasons in the third tier have ended in promotion and in the last three of those he has been absolutely influential.
22 goals for MK Dons.
League One top scorer for Wigan Athletic the following season and last year, another 19 league goals.
He didn’t top the charts on that occasion but no one had a better goals-per-minute ratio.
There was little chance of a deal then but by January, that had changed.
And Sunderland’s need for Grigg was more pressing than ever.
There has been a persistent perception from onlookers that the Black Cats have overperformed this season.
Statistically their attacking threat and consistency has been questioned.
They are something of an anomaly in that they hold an astonishing record by scoring in every league game, yet in recent times there have struggled to get on the scoresheet more than once.
Jack Ross has been steadfast in both his defense and praise of his players.
He has said that their clinical finishing is a result of hard work and also their individual quality.
It is the same at the other end, where Jon McLaughlin has saved point after points with his decisive interventions.
Yet where he would agree is that his team were hampered by the lack of a genuine ‘box player’ or ‘poacher’.
Josh Maja’s finishing inside the box had been utterly outstanding all campaign but even then, he is not a player you would consider an orthodox centre-forward.
His instinct was always to come deep towards the ball.
He was most comfortable on the edge of the area, where he could play facing goal, picking a deft pass or a precise finish.
His best performances often came playing off another centre forward.
Ross, then, had very few options.
Charlie Wyke has spent a long time on the sidelines and even when fit, has been isolated and too easy to mark in the box.
Duncan Watmore’s workload has to be carefully managed and even though he is a player who can turn defenders, he is not a natural in the box.
Sunderland needed a player who can pose a different threat for opposition defenders.
They also needed someone with real composure in the box, too often spurning the chance to kill games when holding a narrow advantage.
As the ongoing Josh Maja saga played out, that need was only becoming more pressing.
For Ross, there were only a handful of targets who could be relied on to deliver what Maja had done.
He is a huge admirer of Lyle Taylor, but the talented forward opted for Charlton Athletic in the summer.
Kieffer Moore is outstanding at this level, physical but an excellent striker of the ball.
Barnsley didn’t want to sell and would have charged a premium well out of Sunderland’s range.
So too John Marquis, another player Ross rates, not just because of his goals but because of his exceptional work-rate, posting some of the best distances for a forward player covered every week.
None of those were available. Not in this window, anyway.
No side at the top of the league wanted to sell to a promotion rival.
The root of Sunderland’s major final day spend is that when it came to Maja, they didn’t have a choice.
Grigg was Sunderland’s top choice and the big development at the start of the window was that unlike the others, a deal was there to be done.
Or so it seemed.
Grigg became the big January deal on the cards from early on in the month.
Sunderland were quoted a price and were surprised by the number.
It suggested a real willingness to do business and so Sunderland went in at a lower price.
That was the subject of much debate, with Wigan unhappy and suggesting the offer derisory.
There were some suggestions that had Sunderland hit a higher price earlier, they could have got a deal done below the level they eventually paid.
Stewart Donald would dispute that, suggesting on the Roker Rapport podcast that the goalposts were moved and that the initial quote was incorrect, a frank conversation with the club’s CEO revealing the true price.
He also rejected suggestions that the initials bids were around the £200,000 mark, saying they were at least double.
What undoubtedly badly affected Sunderland’s pursuit was the ‘Maja tax’ and also Grigg’s status as a genuine Wigan Athletic legend.
As the month drew on the search became harder and harder.
In an ideal world, Sunderland wanted a striker in while there was still some chance, in public at least, that Maja could play on for the rest of the season.
Prices rocketed when Sunderland landed up to £3.5 million for Maja from Bordeaux.
Of course, the kicker was that only £1.5million was guaranteed up front and with a portion of that still owed to the French club for Wahbi Khazri, an obvious compromise was agreed to on the payment.
Sealing that deal for Sunderland was more about protecting themselves with add-ons and a sell-on clause.
Of course, in the long-term that Khazri payment only improves the Black Cats finances but in the short-term it did not mean a boost to their immediate cashflow.
Losing Maja also weakened Sunderland’s hand because now their need for a striker was clear to all.
Striking a financially fair deal only became harder and in Grigg’s case, the situation was complicated by his unique status.
A fan favourite for his character and relationship with the fans.
Scorer of an iconic goal against Manchester City in the FA Cup and countless others in two promotion pushes.
That he was largely out of the picture under Paul Cook was no matter.
He had started the season a regular and in decent form, but injuries to key creative players and poor form in the rest of the side led Cook to go for a more physical option in leading the line.
It wasn’t an overwhelmingly popular call.
With results poor, selling the most popular player at the club for anything other than a sizeable fee would have been a PR disaster.
In that sense, Sunderland perhaps misjudged the situation at the early stage.
Wigan ran the clock down and for the aforementioned reasons, Sunderland were firing blanks elsewhere.
WEIGHING UP THE GAMBLE
Early evening on deadline day and Jack Ross has accepted that may only have one striker through the door.
It’s a gamble, even if it is one he is excited about.
Kazaiah Sterling is unproven but he ticks one critical box in that he is a dynamic forward who can lead the press and also stretch the game by running the channels.
While Watmore builds his fitness it was crucial to have another player capable of doing that.
Sunderland have not always had the personnel this season to make the pitch long and wide, as is the Ross mantra.
Ross wanted a poacher too but he is not one to hammer the point to his bosses.
He has a genuine belief that while recruitment is a central priority for managers, the most important work he can do is on the training pitch.
By Donald’s own admission, the Sunderland manager was far more relaxed as the striker pursuit floundered.
A number of names were put to Ross but he was convinced.
Not because they were bad players, but because they were not significant upgrades and the prices were high.
Ross urged Donald not to overspend.
Donald heeded that but with a few hours to go he was left with one big decision to make on Grigg.
A few factors surely come into play at this point.
One, the promise to supporters to sign two strikers.
More importantly, the need to get promotion this season.
Yes, major work on the club’s finances mean staying in League One would not be a disaster.
But it would be a bitter disappointment for the club and the mood on Wearside as a whole.
The pressure next season would be immense.
If you can do something that seemingly drastically increases your chances of doing it this season, you should.
Thankfully for Sunderland, the finances meant it was possible.
A successful resolution to the Didier Ndong and Papy Djilobodji sagas (both joined Guingamp) made a big difference to the finances, as has the relentless support of Wearside in terms of bums on seats on matchday, as well as commercial revenues and the like.
Then lastly, there is a genuine desire to back Ross and to give him the tools he needs to build on an immensely promising start to his Sunderland tenure.
To Donald’s immense credit, he has never wavered in his support of the manager he picked to lead the revival in the summer and even after a tricky spell, has been absolutely steadfast in his backing.
It has been a long time since there has been that kind of clarity on Wearside and it makes a deal far less risky when you know the player is going to be properly utilised.
Landing Grigg turned January into a very satisfactory window for Ross.
Still, there are parts of the process he would like to improve and he alluded to that on Friday when he said that the deadline day dash was ‘not how he likes to do things’.
Ultimately, the promise to sign two strikers arguably heaped unnecessary pressure on the pursuit when the manager was clear that he would have worked with one had that been how it panned out.
There was an inference from Ross, too, that it was harsh on the current squad who have put the club in such a strong position with a few months of the season to go.
One ultimately wonders whether Sunderland could have ended up with an expensive player that wouldn’t have really improved the squad had Ross not been so patient.
In fairness, on this occasion it was little fault of the Black Cats they were left needing to replace their top scorer.
Donald has spoken well and sensibly on the need to restructure contracts so that the Maja saga is never repeated.
The crucial fact is this.
A panic buy it may have been to an extent, but it also one of the more logical ones in Sunderland's recent history.
£3 million rising to four may well be over the odds for a player still unproven above League One.
But if you take the view that Sunderland have aspirations of competing in the Championship at some stage over the next three-and-a-half years, then it is fair to decide that Grigg will have a good chance of far greater success in a team creating more chances and playing more attacking football than in his previous stints.
He is a grounded character who will fit seamlessly into the dressing room and fits the profile of player Jack Ross has targeted from day one.
He also is the best available option for what was arguably the biggest weakness in the current squad.
If he gets Sunderland into the Championship and beyond, he will be worth the outlay.
It was a fraught month with a strong end result.
Donald can reflect on a job well done and a promise to supporters emphatically delivered.
From a debut at Oxford United on Saturday it ought to be onwards and upwards.