When Asamoah Gyan finally departed for the United Arab Emirates last summer on a permanent basis, plenty could have been forgiven for assuming Sunderland's flirtations with Ghanaian football had come to an abrupt end. A brief love affair that had started brightly - Gyan's countrymen John Mensah and Sulley Muntari each came to Wearside with glowing reputations, but would make no lasting impact - seemed to have ended in tears.
Yet, while on the playing field The Black Stars have yet to wear the red and white stripes since the striker's departure, Sunderland's affiliation with Ghana remains.
In an announcement that largely slipped under the radar back in June 2011, the Black Cats declared the latest of their partnerships with a club from across the globe. This time it was the turn of Ghana's Asante Kotoko to link up with Ellis Short's men.
Kotoko were - and remain - their nation's most successful club. Since joining ranks with Sunderland they have added two Ghanaian national titles, taking their total to an unsurpassed twenty-two. Indeed, such is their pedigree that they are widely seen as one of the most successful clubs in all of Africa.
Though that initial announcement went rather unnoticed, it has since been followed by a heavy step into the African market by Sunderland. The Invest in Africa deal was, of course, well documented, while just last month the club made public its intentions to invest in a new football academy in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam.
So, two years down the line, what do we know of the club's partnership with Kotoko? Was it a mere publicity stunt? Or is there something tangible in it?
The Initial Remit
When the link between the two clubs was announced, the descriptions given were fairly ambiguous. Though there was undoubtedly some self-interest involved, with Sunderland looking to broaden their horizons and promote themselves in previously untrodden terrain, the majority of the agreement seemed to weigh heavily in the favour of the current Ghanaian champions.
Sunderland were set to "offer practical support and advice in youth coaching" to Kotoko, as well as looking to have a hand in player development.
Furthermore, it was said that Sunderland would look to aid their new African compatriots in "fitness and medical matters," along with offering a helping hand in the murky world of football business strategy.
Niall Quinn's comments at the time offered little in the way of substance, as he simply alluded to the "infectious enthusiasm" for football that he felt the people of both Ghana and Sunderland shared.
Two Years On
Yet, while few on Wearside can probably even recall the link, never mind put a name to the men otherwise known as the Porcupine Warriors, it would seem that the link between the two clubs is much more concrete than may have been first thought.
Without doubt, the most importance aspect of the partnership concerns youth development. Much as we have seen an added focus upon Sunderland's own development squad already this transfer window, so too has the club arrowed in on helping out the nurturing of youngsters in Africa.
Pertinently, Sunderland's former player and current International Development Coach, Gordon Chisholm, has been out to the Kumasi-based club's facilities to offer firsthand advice.
Chisholm's primary role is said to be focused on identifying young talents further afield, as well as looking to enhance Sunderland's worldwide image. Speaking to The Herald, Chisholm gave a clear indication of the heavy links with Africa:
Sunderland are heavily invested in Africa so what we would like to do is go in and start a partnership with some professional clubs and set up academies. It won't just be in Africa, but a lot of it will be there.
Of course, this link is already in place with Kotoko - and Chisholm's visit there has already seen changes made. On his recommendation, the Ghanaian side has dissolved its previous youth structure: the under-17 teams have been removed, with the club now focused upon a three-tiered approach incorporating under-12s, under-15s and under-20s. Kotoko are now looking to recruit talent at a younger age, and nourish it for longer.
They are also set to participate in an under-18 tournament in the UK over the next few weeks, something which is expected to be turned into a yearly occurrence.
Chisholm is not the only one to have made a lengthy journey either, with former Kotoko boss Maxwell Konadu having visited Wearside in February 2012. Konadu, now in charge on Ghana's national under-20 team, visited the Stadium of Light for a two week coaching course.
Gary Al-Smith, a Ghanaian journalist (and one who helped with this article hugely), spoke to Kotoko about what Konadu learned during his time at Sunderland. The response was a glowing one:
It was clear that the time or brevity of Maxwell's refresher course at Sunderland was irrelevant; what mattered most was the value of knowledge he acquired. The impact of his knowledge upgrade was felt by the club. He led Kotoko to win the league title for the first time in four years. The title was won with four games to spare.
In addition, Sunderland are offering practical support too. Kits are to be flown out to the club, while Sunderland officials are rumoured to have helped Kotoko broker the biggest sponsorship of any Ghanaian club in history with a UK firm who, as yet, have yet to be named. Furthermore, officials on Wearside from a whole array of departments are to offer training and advice to their foreign counterparts. A delegation of Kotoko officials will arrive in the north east next month; the favour is to be returned after the end of the 2013/14 Premier League season.
What Does This Mean For Sunderland?
Currently, the benefits for Sunderland are relatively understated. The most obvious upside at the moment, as stated by Gary Al-Smith to myself, is:
Sunderland are internationalising. They are stretching their tentacles beyond England and Europe. They see Kotoko as their eye in Africa, although they recently agreed to manage an academy in Tanzania.
The partnership looks to be one that will take a number of years for the full effects to be felt - but that needn't be a negative. Kotoko have made it known that, while the initial impact of the link has not been huge, they are confident that the changes implemented on the youth development side of things could set up the senior time for many seasons to come.
Accordingly, this bodes well for Sunderland. The heavy focus on youth development is something that allows the club to potentially pick up promising African players well before they have even hit the radar of other European sides.
It is difficult not to see the Kotoko link as one that underlines Sunderland's new strategy. The hiring of Roberto De Fanti and Valentino Angeloni has already resulted in the club looking to boost its youth ranks with a number of foreign imports; a foothold in the fortunes of one of Africa's most successful clubs only serves to strengthen that approach.
Far from being a publicity stunt, or a deal that only benefits the Ghanaians, Sunderland's partnership with Kotoko could prove to be a fruitful one in coming years on Wearside.
Again, I'd like to thank Gary Al-Smith for his help with producing this article - the information and insight he provided was invaluable. Follow him on Twitter HERE.