Since Sunderland returned to the Premier League under Roy Keane, the January transfer window has seen four Sunderland managers with an opportunity to shake up their squads. Keane himself, interim manager Ricky Sbragia, Steve Bruce and current incumbent Martin O'Neill have all done business over the past six winter windows.
The most obvious trend in these windows has been the signing of loan players by all four managers. With good value not always easy to come by in January, loan signings make sense as both a quick fix and as a way to trial a player before potentially making a permanent move for them. It's no surprise that managers who haven't been in the job for long have chosen to do short term deals while they take the time to assess their squads.
2008, Keane's final January transfer window in charge, saw the arrival of Jonny Evans on loan. An unmitigated success on Wearside for the second season running, the Northern Irishman helped secure the Lads' Premier League status. Another popular loanee arrived in 2010, as Alan Hutton signed up until the end of the season under Steve Bruce. He proved to be the type of right back the squad is still lacking; attack minded and comfortable on the ball. Evans and Hutton act as great examples of what a short term loan deal can do while also proving how frustrating they can be, as neither was signed permanently. At the time, this was extremely disappointing, though it could be said that Hutton's career trajectory since points to a dodged bullet in his case.
Martin O'Neill has also shown a willingness to dip into the loan market. Arguably, signing the manager himself was Sunderland's most important deal of last season and given the limited time he'd been in charge the arrivals on loan of Wayne Bridge and Sotirios Kyrgiakos were logical. Unfortunately, neither was particularly impressive. They made enough appearances to warrant being signed on short term deals, though I'm fairly sure most supporters would agree that with hindsight, the side would have been better off without the big Greek centre back. His displays were particularly hapless and ultimately costly. It is to be hoped that now O'Neill has settled in at the club, he has got it right with his latest loan signing, Kader Mangane.
At the time of writing, the 6'5" central defender hasn't made an appearance in a red and white shirt, still lacking match fitness after a short spell in Saudi Arabia. It is to be hoped that he can regain the sort of form he showed at Stade Rennais where he was highly thought of. At the moment it's too early to judge the player against loanees of the past but the majority of the evidence points to him being more of a Jonny Evans than a Calum Davenport or Tal Ben Haim, two other forgettable defensive loan signings.
Sunderland managers have rarely parted with money for players in January since the departure of Keane. His last winter in charge saw the arrival of a striker in the form of Rade Prica. It would be unfair to judge that window on the Swedish striker alone, as Keane also brought in Andy Reid and Phil Bardsley at the same time. Neither player is, or was perfect, but both added to a squad that was short of creativity and steel. Bardsley, for his faults, of which there are many, has obviously done something right to survive at the club for this long and his attitude is commendable.
Prica however, was a disaster; a complete waste of money. He scored on his debut then did very little else, failing to find the net again, making just six appearances. Danny Graham cost approximately double the price, but should also provide more than double the value for money. In his cameo debut appearance, he looked a goal threat and provided Steven Fletcher with some much needed support in and around the box. There was to be no debut goal for him against Reading but there was enough in his performance to suggest he will comfortably outscore Prica in the long run.
Graham has his doubters and not just because of his Newcastle United supporting roots. A number of fans simply do not rate him as a player. With a Premier League goal scoring record of around 1 in 3, £5m looks like decent value to me. Michael Chopra arrived for a similar fee despite being pretty much unproven at Premier League level. Graham represents far less of a gamble.
In 2010, Steve Bruce signed a striker in January, bringing Benjani in on loan. While Alan Hutton was a great success in the second half of that season, the Zimbabwean striker was the opposite, failing to score in 8 appearances for the club. Generally speaking, Bruce signed good strikers but was unable to hold onto them for very long. Benjani bucked the trend in one sense by being useless, although thankfully he wasn't on Wearside for a great deal of time.
At 27 years old there is plenty of football left in Graham, and with his roots firmly in the North East, he should go on to make numerous appearances for the club. However, it is 22 year old Alfred N'Diaye who arrives with the future firmly in mind. O'Neill and those pulling the financial strings at the Stadium of Light will be hoping he provides an immediate impact - so far he has looked pretty raw- but also good long term value. In this respect, he's a fairly unique signing at this time of the year where Sunderland are concerned. Only Jean-Yves M'Voto was brought in by Roy Keane as a prospect but he wasn't expected to make the sort of instant impression that is anticipated of N'Diaye.
The only window that really compares to the latest one in terms of incoming talent is Bruce's final January in charge of the Lads, which was tarnished by Darren Bent's exit. There was genuine excitement at the arrivals of Stephane Sessegnon, probably Sunderland's best signing at this time of the year, and Sulley Muntari. The Ghanaian midfielder unfortunately failed to live up the hype and his loan signing was not made permanent. There was still talent at the club in the form of Asamoah Gyan and loan player Danny Welbeck but Bent's departure cast a shadow over the remainder of the season. Injuries mounted alongside Steve Bruce's increasingly desperate excuses and the manager never fully recovered from the second half of the 2010/2011 season. In fact, despite Sessegnon proving to be a very good signing, particularly for the relatively paltry sum of £6m, it wasn't until Martin O'Neill arrived that the Benin international found anything like his best form and even now he remains somewhat of a conundrum.
There was never any real risk of major departures this time around. A small squad has been reduced in size but the fringe players who have been released are unlikely to be missed. In fact, the willingness to spend money has been encouraging while the decks have continued to be cleared with the summer in mind. This is a window that has shown Sunderland to be forward thinking as the club plans for the future. It's this sort of long term planning that suggests O'Neill may just have delivered our best January window since Premier League football was returned to Wearside.