Sunderland’s transfer conundrum

Sunderland manager Martin O'NeillAfter another disappointing end to the season for Sunderland, Martin O’Neill finally gets the chance to stamp his authority at the Stadium of Light this summer.

The Black Cats have been busy in the transfer market during previous seasons but have little to show for their efforts after big spending former managers Roy Keane and Steve Bruce left them with an unbalanced squad. After the improvements made under O’Neill it’s expected chairman Ellis Short will back him with funds but can Sunderland actually afford to invest heavily again?

Every fan craves a little transfer action but it may not be so easy for Sunderland as clubs around Europe prepare for the new UEFA Financial Fair Play Rules. Teams will have to spend within their means and many will use the time to streamline their squads before the rules kick in. Sunderland have already released nine players this summer including Scotland goalkeeper Craig Gordon and more are expected to follow.

It’s a difficult situation for O’Neill as he knows his squad is lacking in a few areas but he can’t spend big to flesh it out. His rebuilding job will have to coincide with the club offloading fringe players and tightening the purse strings.

Becoming a self sustaining business is something many teams are focusing on but there are some Sunderland fans who can’t understand where the money has gone. Bruce was backed heavily but his transfers actually made a profit for club. The sales of Darren Bent (£24m) and Jordan Henderson (£16m) combined with the money from TV rights and the reward of a mid table finish means they should have plenty of funds to work with.

Unfortunately it’s never as simple as that. In reality Bent was bought for £10m rising to nearer £16m and his short stay in the North East meant Sunderland still owed instalments to Tottenham when he left. Also Aston Villa didn’t pay £24m in full so the club isn’t as rich as some might think. Early season criticism of Bruce was that he never replaced Bent but he actually signed Stephane Sessegnon during the same January transfer window so it was only the Henderson money that really inflated their bank balance.

After Henderson’s departure Bruce embarked on a massive recruitment drive that saw over 10 players join the side. The permanent arrivals did much to appease fans who were frustrated by years of loan signings that only papered over the cracks. While spending £30m on 10+ players sounds great, each player was only worth roughly £3m so Sunderland were actually left with an inflated wage bill and a team full of squad players. It meant the club were unable to improve on last seasons 10th place finish and O’Neill told Sunderland Echo that any strides made during his reign will not hide their fragility for long.

“Despite us wanting to finish in the top 10, had we done so it might have glossed over a few things that we needed to address in terms of strengthening.

“After spending the second half of the season in charge here, I’ve a great idea about the strengths and weaknesses of the side and what we need to do to try to improve.”

Unfortunately Short has told O’Neill he must lower the wage bill before he can bring new players in so how much can he actually spend?

Loans of Wayne Bridge, Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Nicklas Bendtner will not be made permanent and the impending departure of Asamoah Gyan should help swell the coffers. There are returning loan players who are surplus to requirements and rumours over the futures of Kieran Richardson and Ahmed El Mohamady so Sunderland should generate enough funds to improve the team.

The only problem is selling current squad members will mean replacements are needed. Sunderland already need a left back, centre back, cover for both fullbacks, right and left wing cover and at least two new forwards to form a competitive squad with depth in every position. Fans know they also need a creative midfielder to counter grafters like Lee Cattermole and Craig Gardner so suddenly O’Neill has gone from choosing a few select signings to needing a complete overhaul of his squad.

It’s exciting for the fans but would another season of massive player turnover be a good thing given the clubs recent lack of stability?

Sunderland’s transfer policy will have a major say in their aspirations for next season. They have potential but need quality to embellish the consistent performers they already own. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve failed to maintain a balanced squad and this time the situation is magnified because they have to sell before they can buy.

Rivals Newcastle recently illustrated what can be achieved with some successful wheeling and dealing. It’s a precedent Sunderland fans would begrudgingly love to follow for they know if O’Neill struggles to improve the squad they’ll face another year going round in circles and have little to play for come the end of the season.

The phrase ‘In O’Neill We Trust’ has never held so much importance and fans will hope he uses his funds wisely to propel them into the top 10 for good.

Do you think Sunderland should spend a lot this season? Do you trust O’Neill to invest wisely this summer?  Let me know your views and opinions by following me on twitter – Tweet me @Alex_Churcher