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Captain's Blog: Times, They Are A Changin' - Again

Change. For Sunderland it seems change is just the norm. This summer it is no different, but can this change actually, you know, change anything?

Paul Thomas

Since Roker Report started a few years ago - roughly at the very height of the Steve Bruce era - there have been two words that Sunderland have almost etched into our psyche - 'transition' and 'identity'.

That is no real surprise, really. Those who lack the latter will always be football's wandering souls, constantly changing, desperately seeking some solace of self. From one game to another, fans flock to the Stadium of Light never truly knowing what to expect; from one summer to another, the transfer policy seems to change as the end-of-season inquest lays failure firmly at its door.

This summer doesn't really appear to be any different, and how could it possibly be? Changing personnel brings changing ideas, it's just an unavoidable residue, and for the third successive summer we are heading into a season with a different set-up to that with which we started the last.

Personally, I don't think think that there was anything inherently wrong with last summer's policy, but it was a reactionary policy. Having seen big money deals fail to pay dividends the previous summer, the club seemed to be in a cynical, cautious mindset over its future. It was probably an attempt to break the fear of being wholly dependent upon Ellis Short's continued generosity more than anything else; the headstrong teenager's first foray into the big wide world, insistent it can do it alone.

That foray seems to have resulted in a few harsh lessons being learned. It was probably a bit like that rubbishy, stress-filled soul-crushingly demoralising first job that most of us had which ultimately served only to make it clear to us what we don't want to be. If this summer so far is anything to go by, last season seems to have finally scared the club into one epiphany which could change it forever - survival, even dramatic adrenalin filled survival, can never and should never equate to success.

Where as last summer was reactive, this one so far couldn't be more proactive. Forget the frustration in time it took for things to start to really get moving. Transfers don't just happen overnight, but that isn't the kind of proactive I'm talking about.

I'm talking about targeting up-and-coming players like Jack Rodwell and Fabio Borini, paying the extra to secure them, and handing out five-year deals that say 'we back ourselves to make you better' rather than three-year deals that say 'we are protecting ourselves if you flop'.

I'm talking about taking a chance on a young player with a good background like Patrick van Aanholt rather than loaning, make-doing or journeyman-ing your way to the next window.

I'm talking about identifying the lack of pace, energy, youth and ambition in the squad, recognising them as the prerequisites of the modern game that they are and steadfastly refusing to settle for less. It's about committing to a clear tactical blueprint and recruiting as a matter of insistence in harmony, not at odds, with it.

The fact of the matter is that football has changed dramatically over the last couple of years. Financial Fair Play and global marketing has seen the elite clubs of world football effectively dupe UEFA into pulling the ladder up to their club house.

For clubs like Sunderland, the only way to be part of it is to feed it - to be one of the clubs who bridge the gap between player promise and player prestige. The term 'Udinese model' will probably become synonymous with suffering in Sunderland's history, but it was pretty much outdated before the club even considered embracing it. A buy low, sell high mentality just doesn't wash any more, at least not at this level.

And how could it possibly? We live in a world where Championship strikers command fees of £10million and the pick of League One forwards will set you back £5million.

It's the new TV contract that has raised the stakes of the game almost over night, despite the best efforts of Financial Fair Play, and that means that you need bigger pots of cash to buy yourself into it. It's now a case of buy high, sell higher, and if you're very clever you may just end up with a cracking team along the way.

Of course, you could look at, say, Atletico Madrid and decide that the inevitability of losing those players you've developed renders the whole process pointless, which is fair enough. On the other hand, you could look them and note that they managed to squeeze in a La Liga title and a couple other trophies before that happened.

Obviously, Sunderland are a long long way from that kind of thinking, but realistically it is the only path to success and prominence that is open for clubs of our stature. You can either engage and see what happens, or you can opt out of the game and just watch those who actually have the balls for the challenge slug it out, praying you don't get shot in the cross-fire. I know which I'd prefer.

Whilst we don't know whether Fabio Borini can be persuaded to come to the club, he and Jack Rodwell are precisely the kind of players you want to see your club in for. They are both 23-years-old, both ambitious, and both have an exceptionally high ceiling in terms of what they could become. If he can be persuaded to sign a new contract, you could probably add Connor Wickham to that category too.

Sure, they arrive at a premium, but they are the kind of players who can change a football club like Sunderland. It's a brave path to take, but its got to be more fun than simply treading water and trying to endlessly survive.

The elephant in the room here is that we've been here before. After every failure, we hail the change and tell ourselves it is the stroke of genius that will be the making of the club. In truth, any plan is rubbish if the execution is lacking and this will be no different.

However, you finally get the sense that Sunderland as a football club is ready to stop worrying about protecting itself from being collateral damage in the cut-throat world of Premier League football and start backing itself to throw a few punches of its own.

Until that actually materialises, the seemingly endless search for strength in identity will continue for Sunderland, and I have far too much residual egg on my face to make any bold predictions this time. For the first time in a while, though, Sunderland appear to have adopted an aggressive stance rather than attempting to cower behind a defensive one, and that's something certainly worth getting behind.

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