What is it that matters most to us as supporters? If all we wish for is success, we risk losing the last scraps of integrity that the game is already far too deprived of, in a blind pursuit of achievement. But if we seek to jettison quality at the first sign of exploitative or duplicitous negotiating tactics, we risk becoming an admirably principled club bound for oblivion. It is a difficult balance to strike and one that every fan who is invested in their clubs history wrestles with in the modern game.
Since Lamine Koné’s transfer has failed to materialise - for now - we must ask ourselves whether we, as a club, are willing to entertain and ultimately reward this behaviour. Of course, no one doubts his quality and that we are a better squad with him in it. However, what is beyond doubt is that his representatives have utilised a strong bargaining position to saturate the media with transfer rumours and photographs that were intended to place Sunderland on a defensive footing and secure his demands. As a fan, despite the modern game holding few surprises for me anymore, I am not ashamed to say that it hurt.
I love my club and I love football, both of which - in their best moments - stand for some of the very best aspects of community life, social harmony and unbridled but positively directed passion. To see both institutions reduced to the depths of squalid public relations wars and dealings with greedy businessmen is a difficult thing to watch, no matter how deep-rooted, commonplace or necessary this has become.
Comparisons have been made between Koné’s behaviour and that of Yaya Touré and Wayne Rooney, who are prone to the occasional public tantrum and transfer request - a thin veneer for their desire to put some extra money in their pocket for a bit longer.
Touré famously said he wanted to leave Manchester City because he felt disrespected when Manchester City did not give him a birthday cake. His rather bizarre and unique sensitivities were placated by money. Funny that.
On other occasions his agent has publicly stated in a highly suggestive tone that perhaps Touré might like a new challenge. That the impending summer might be the one where Touré would spread his wings, experience new leagues and win new trophies. But lo and behold, money once again made all that insecurity, restlessness and ambition go away. Quelle surprise!
You have to be a certain type of person to behave in such a way. Top players are not always like this, but the players who are like this are always top players. There are many more examples in the modern game. The players - and most importantly their agents - know that they’ve got the upper hand because they possess talent that will be so badly missed, that most clubs will do almost anything they can to keep them.
I have no issue with Koné wanting a pay rise, even if it is only six months into a four year contract. We all know what it’s like to be in a job for which we have the security of a ‘permanent’ contract, but still have no intention of staying indefinitely without the promise of more money. Our issue with footballers is that the scale of the wages make us incredulous as to why any increase is needed at all. But this reaction, however justifiable given the gulf that exists between our lifestyles and theirs, is just not realistic. People are very rarely happy with what they’ve got and satisfaction with income and lifestyle is always relative to the individual.
I know we all want footballers to get on with their job and gain some self awareness for how unfathomably fortunate they all are. Koné's supposed current salary of forty thousand pounds a week is a ludicrous amount of money, the sort that any supporter could only dream of earning. But we could make the same complaint about a player on twenty thousand a week, ten thousand a week, or even five thousand a week - all more than enough money with which to have a very comfortable existence.
If other players at the club are earning the amount of money that you want, very few players who have demonstrated their importance and abilities will think, ‘Forty grand is a lot to the average punter, I'll not kick up a fuss'. While we all think we can imagine what it would be like to be a footballer earning forty thousand pounds a week, we are prisoners to the fact that we cannot predict how we would act or what such a lifestyle would do to our own sense of perspective. There are many loyal, responsible footballers, relatively unfazed by the obscene wealth they could or do get and who possess a healthy and patient perspective to their lives and careers. But there are also many players who would see forty thousand pounds a week as a genuine insult. That sort of warped relationship with financial reality seems to me to be an inevitable outcome of the environment of modern football.
When thirty three year old year old Jermain Defoe is supposedly paid eighty thousand pounds a week, an argument can be made that Koné should be on similar. In my view, Koné is as important as Defoe, just in a different way. It is the manner of his approach that upsets people and I understand that, but perhaps this is something that we might occasionally have to get used to if we have players performing well, lifting the club to higher league positions and attracting many suitors as a result.
If we want players who are simply grateful for what they've got and we sell those who seek pay rises or use underhanded tactics to acquire them, we'll be a principled club dealing - more often than not - with players of a lower standard than Lamine Koné. Of course, not all top players will behave like this. Not all Man City players get their pay rises like Touré, but he - like Rooney and Koné - is an inevitable by-product of an environment that we will not change on our own.
Selling Koné would have signalled a belief in principles that transcend success and money and would no doubt have been the most emotionally satisfying thing to do in the short term. For those of us who love football and Sunderland at their purest, we wanted to find a way to show him - and his agent - that we won't be bullied. But in the long term, he won't lose out and another club who are willing to stump up the cash will reap the rewards of his performances and their fans will not think twice about his lofty wages as they watch him play. It would have been a futile resistance against the realities of modern day football, one which no governing body or authority appear willing or able to mitigate.
If we want to progress and keep our best players, we're going to have to get our hands dirty dealing with agents and players who manufacture urgency and tension through these means to line their clients pockets and their own.
We therefore have to watch as our clubs turn into businesses that pamper prima donna footballers, who have seemingly no care or concept of how disgusting their demands look to people who work long hard days for low pay and have to budget and save just to attend the games and buy the shirts. Now that clubs are for all intents and purposes businesses, it is unsurprising that players and their agents negotiate like businessmen through bitter and underhanded means. The problem is that in footballing world, there are devoted and passionate fans who must sometimes watch as their club suffers the indignity of being desecrated and used by businessmen on both sides of the table.
The stomach churning prospect of rewarding such behaviour does not sit easy with anyone who cares for Sunderland AFC. I suppose Koné has disrespected and insulted the fans by forgetting them and treating the club as merely a business from which more money can be gained. However, for better or worse, I want to see my club survive and I want to see supporters happy and rewarded with success on the pitch.
I still love what football is in its purest sense and I still love Sunderland AFC. It is a blind love, a hopeful love and one that is tested by the state of the modern game. But it also a love that never wanes. This is not an easy dilemma. How do we as fans approach the game, our clubs and the players with the same enthusiasm and reverence as it changes around us into something ugly? I suppose we all have to decide how we square that circle. But there is a very real risk of clubs with illustrious and noble heritage becoming mired in lower league struggles and suffering financial oblivion. No matter my distaste at behaviour like Koné’s, I cannot say I wish to see my club in that position due to a lone principled stance.
We need players like Koné and if we want to consistently break in to the top ten of the Premier League, we are going to have to do all we can to retain players like him, whatever tactics they employ. It is this reality that gives him and those like him the power to behave as they do. The tolerance for such behaviour must ultimately change, but one club cannot change it alone. Football’s governing bodies must do all they can to retain and regain the core values and principles of the sport. In the meantime, we must be willing to, however rarely, engage in such practices if we are to survive and thrive in the Premier League.
I think what may be the most truthful thing to say is that Sunderland and Koné can both help each other, rather than both love each other. It is a mutual partnership for strategic business advantage. And that is modern football in a nut shell.