The time lovingly known as "silly season" has started quite remarkably early this year, and it is proving a real irritant. Not even three weeks have passed since our final game of the season and yet already it is seemingly impossible to pick up a newspaper without seeing stories, largely emanating from the North West, telling us about Liverpool's plans to effectively asset-strip Sunderland at their leisure. Sadly, it appears that speculation has come to pass, and I will not be commenting on the specifics of the particular deal. What I will do, however, is assert a belief that whilst top clubs targeting our players underlines the club's arrival at the much-heralded 'next level', the lack of strength with which we have dealt with such situations could very well signal the end of the club's credibility as a genuinely ambitious and progressive club intent on achieving any more than mere Premier League consolidation.
It always seemed inevitable that at some point over the course of the summer Sunderland's resolve to keep their best players at the club would be tested. Quality footballers will always be courted. 'Every player has their price' and all that, but I have yet to hear a compelling or convincing argument as to why this was the moment to sell.
First of all, even if we were tempted to cash in, this summer was simply not a practical time to do it. We are already tasked with the huge job of replacing Darren Bent, Fraizer Campbell, Bolo Zenden, and the four players on loan last season it looks unlikely we will retain. That is just to stand still. We are simply not in a position to invite further upheaval upon ourselves this summer. We will be doing incredibly well to hit the ground running next season as it is without losing any more key players on top. Will those most adamant that selling should be viewed as a means to reinvest in the team for the overall good of the club also be the ones most vociferously and vehemently insisting on patience whilst the changes slowly take effect next season? I strongly suspect not. It is also flawed logic anyway. If clubs operating at a level that we are seeking to reach believe our top players can improve them, then how can we hope to catch them by selling our best and brightest to such clubs whilst signing their reserves? Despite only being here two years, Steve Bruce is about to build his second new Sunderland squad. We have somehow managed to lock ourselves in a vicious circle of constant rebuilding rather than actually building any meaningful foundations. That can not possibly be a healthy situation.
But it is not issues of practicality that fuel my opinion that Sunderland should have steadfastly refused to sell this summer, but concerns over what further sales would do to the perception of the club. A year ago, we sold Lorik Cana and Kenwyne Jones. Six months ago we sold Darren Bent. We are already teetering on the brink of being labelled a selling club, and once that stigma takes a grip it can be a very tough one to shed. Allowing another of our bigger names to leave this summer would surely see clubs convinced that we lack the strength to resist determined advances for our players and declare open season on Sunderland, and understandably so. Is avoiding such a stigma worth more to the club than a hefty transfer fee? I personally think so, although it seems the club disagrees. Blackpool were able to hang on to Charlie Adam in January, West Ham were able to hang on to Scott Parker last year, and Stoke and Bolton have been resolute in their determination to hang on to Ryan Shawcross and Gary Cahill. Aston Villa have refused to entertain the possibility of selling Ashley Young for years until his contract situation may well force their hand this summer. How many summers have Everton managed to keep the big clubs away from Jack Rodwell now? Need we go on? Make no mistake about it – if those clubs can resist the advances of the so-called big clubs, then Sunderland most certainly can too and we are selling another top player because we want to, not because we were forced to. A young player with 4 years left on a recently signed contract was most certainly not in a position to force anything. I think most were willing to give the club the benefit over the doubt over the sale of Darren Bent, but a repeat this summer sees questions rightly being asked about the club's ambition.
Those questions will not only be asked rivals either. If you were, for example, Asamoah Gyan or Stephane Sessegnon and you saw your employers developing a habit for hemorrhaging important players, would you feel enthusiastic about sticking around? If you were an ambitious quality young player looking for a club to settle and build a legacy at, would you sign for one with a reputation for selling? I know I certainly wouldn't. Tottenham, who are the model for breaking into the upper echelons of the Premier League without a billionaire benefactor in the mould of Sheikh Mansour, built their recent rise upon attracting just that kind of player (Luka Modric, Michael Dawson, Gareth Bale, and Aaron Lennon to name but a few). Surely if we have similar ambitions then we simply can not afford the connotations attached to being seen as a soft touch in the transfer market. Being a club with a reputation for not standing in the way of ambitious players may well help the club attract names we otherwise could not hope to, but it won't provide the means for building something sustainable on the pitch.
And what of the fans? We have more right to ask the questions than anyone. I was fortunate enough to sit in Sedgefield Racecourse and listen to Niall Quinn assuring a room of Sunderland fans that Jordan Henderson would be cemented and protected at the heart of the clubs plans to ensure there could be no repeat of the Darren Bent situation. Quinn has repeatedly preached the importance of reconnecting the fans with their club and their players but it is becoming increasingly difficult to allow ourselves to attach ourselves to players when there appears little dedication to keeping them at the club for long. The next time the club wants to lament fans who watch games in pubs rather than in the Stadium of Light, they may want to remind themselves that fence-sitting fans are not won back by the offer of paying huge prices to watch a team which is effectively serving as a feeder club at the expense of their own ambitions.
The magic carpet always appeared to be at a crossroads this summer. One road, although appearing the far more daunting and difficult to traverse with a plethora of predators prowling its path, facilitated the potential for further elevation. The other offered a safe and unremarkable journey, but one which would forever condemn us to enviously looking up at those brave enough to aim for the stars. The club seems to have made its decision.