Sunderland Must Learn From the Mistakes of Summers Past

Alex Livesey

Gus Poyet has already set about reshaping his squad for the coming season and, despite the looming interlude of a certain tournament in Brazil to distract us all, this summer is expected to be transfer-heavy on Wearside yet again. But what must Sunderland heed from previous summer dealings?

For some, the potential demotion to the Championship at the end of the 2013/14 season was not the apocalyptic travesty others insisted upon. Here, once and for all, would be a chance for Sunderland to clear the decks, ship out the deadwood, start anew.

Of course, wonders and Wickham conspired to ensure that, come August 16th, the Black Cats will embark upon their eighth consecutive term in the top tier of English football. No one of a Wearside persuasion - or at least no one of a sane disposition - would have greeted this news with dismay, yet Sunderland's continuing stay in the Premier League poses yet another summer conundrum for the club and its manager.

A year ago, talk of revolution was rife in and around (Andy TownsendTM) SR5. Paolo Di Canio screeched from the rooftops about a need to change the entire ethos of the club; joined by the shadowy presences of Roberto De Fanti and Valentino Angeloni, a triumvirate of Italians were entrusted with ensuring Sunderland did not once again delve into the murky straits of a relegation battle.

Now, far be it for one to draw simple conclusions, but it didn't quite work out. Di Canio's eccentricities and his swift departure shielded the summer's business from plain view somewhat - how could we assess new players when the man in charge was such a barmy belligerent? - but, as time went on, the inadequacies of those recruited in the summer of 2013 were laid bare. Indeed, De Fanti followed his countryman out of the door after just seven months in his post as Director of Football.

Sunderland's recruits last summer, though intriguing on the surface, proved to be largely insufficient for purpose. Valentin Roberge and Modibo Diakite were unable to provide any real stern competition in the centre of defence. Jozy Altidore should have came equipped with a satellite navigation system, such was his inability to locate the opposing goal.

Emanuele Giaccherini flattered to deceive for much of the season, though did bear fruit towards the end, albeit as an impact substitute as opposed to a man who can control games. Ondrej Celustka was more noted for his bathing habits than his footballing ability, while Cabral is presumably lost in a timewarp somewhere. The less said about Andrea Dossena, the better.

Elsewhere, David Moberg Karlsson, Charalampos Mavrias, El-Hadji Ba and Duncan Watmore were all evidently too young and raw to be expected to make an immediate impact.

Indeed, Vito Mannone aside, none of those signed on a permanent basis made any sustained and positive contributions to the Sunderland cause. The two other most impressive recruits from last summer, Ki Sung-Yeung and Fabio Borini, were both loanees, now returned to their parent clubs and looking unlikely to venture back to the north-east.

This tale of mass upheaval proving relatively futile is not an isolated incident at the Stadium of Light. Since returning to the Premier League in 2007, the club's turnover of its playing squad has been staggering - no fewer than 76 players have joined Sunderland on a permanent basis, with 82 departing in the same period of time.

The revolving door on the banks of the Wear has continued to remain busy; already, Jordi Gomez and Billy Jones have joined the club, with Craig Gardner, Carlos Cuéllar, Phil Bardsley, Keiren Westwood and the aforementioned Dossena the highest profile departures thus far.

Despite the widely held belief that Sunderland need a mass overhaul to achieve something beyond scrapping around the lower reaches of the league, recent evidence suggests such an approach is no more likely to bear fruit than if the club were to simply remain in a state of stagnation, refusing to embrace change. What is needed, it appears, is more nuanced and incremental change.

Though it is impossible to read the mind of manager Gus Poyet, his early dealings would suggest he knows this to be the case. Those that have been allowed to leave thus far are players whose careers at Sunderland had largely stagnated; Poyet's desire to retain the services of Seb Larsson and Jack Colback is telling. Though maligned at times, and not without reason, they are a pairing that can undoubtedly still offer something to the squad. Allowing them to leave without a fight (Colback, unfortunately, looks set to depart) would only increase the numbers Poyet must then look to bring in.

While grand change can bring about feelings of optimism - it certainly did last summer - the realities such a course of action serves up are far more precarious than many often consider. For a start, the task of integrating a whole host of new players into a solid, workable unit is a very difficult one, not least in a summer shortened by the World Cup extravaganza. This is before we even mention such issues as language barriers, or foreign recruits attempting to adjust to English football.

A further lesson from the past refers not to quantity, but quality. Whatever their Chief Executive may say to the contrary, the simple fact is that, in recent years, Sunderland have continually sold their best players. What is worse, they have replaced them with inferior substitutes. Some sales have been out of necessity - Darren Bent fled to the Midlands of his own accord, Jordan Henderson could not be denied a life-changing move to Liverpool - but it remains that the club has consistently failed to replace its few gems with similar, or better, players.

For this reason, Poyet must strive to retain the services of his more gifted individuals. Given the terrible showings presented to the Stadium of Light faithful all too often last season, it is arguable that this is a difficult band of men to identify. Yet, the likes of Lee Cattermole, Adam Johnson and Vito Mannone play unique and pivotal roles in the side; Sunderland must not be swayed by tempting bids, as they were last year when Stephane Sessegnon departed for relegation rivals West Bromwich Albion.

That sale of Sessegnon was met by plenty with mixed emotions, but it was a transfer that did little to help Sunderland's cause. With a huge influx of new players needing to bed in as soon as possible, the shearing from their ranks of one of their most creative players was a clear hindrance. Even though Sessegnon often flattered to deceive, Sunderland would have been better served with him than without him in the goal drought that was the opening half of last season.

Ultimately, as with any other club, Sunderland and Gus Poyet must ensure that those they bring in this summer are the right fit. This is easier said than done, but Poyet's end of term "miracle" strengthened his hand in the power stakes, and will help him determine which type of player arrives on Wearside in the coming months. Jordi Gomez and Billy Jones are not going to set the world alight, but they are versatile, positionally aware and possess good technique - precisely what Poyet looks for in a footballer.

Once again, while the rest of the country delves into troughs of Bulmers and relaxes into the cricket season, Sunderland find themselves at a crossroads. Do they plump for upheaval, do they stay the same, or do they look to make small, gradual changes, adding greater quality on top of what is, essentially, a squad of squad players?

One hopes it is the latter. Even though many in the current squad have brought about plenty of deserved ire from the club's supporters, a vast clear-out is both infeasible and unwise.

Paradoxically, in contrast to previous Sunderland supremos, Martin O'Neill's sole summer transfer window saw him prioritise quality over quantity, only for him to be sacked in the season that followed. However, this should not deter Poyet from pursuing the same route. O'Neill pulled off the coups of signing Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher, before embarking upon an uninspiring playing strategy that proved to be his downfall.

Poyet is highly unlikely to replicate that mistake. Entrusted with a crestfallen, haphazard side, the Uruguayan instilled a possession-based approach and achieved survival his way. Now he should continue with his progressive tactics - but ensure he adds some much-needed quality, rather than quantity, to his ranks.

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