When the team sheets for yesterday’s Boxing Day clash at Bramall Lane emerged before kick off, there were three notable absentees - Didier Ndong, Jack Rodwell and Lewis Grabban.
The latter we can park to one side for now. Grabban may or may not remain a Sunderland player come January but his fate rests with Bournemouth and whether they can find a buyer for the 29-year-old.
However, most of us had expected to see Didier Ndong’s name in Chris Coleman’s starting XI and after the game, the Black Cats boss appeared short in his explanation as to why Sunderland’s record signing was missing.
And following his manager all but issuing an ultimatum to Jack Rodwell to present himself as fit and ready to play for the trip to Sheffield, the continued absence of the £10m buy was also notable - if not surprising.
In the build-up to the Boxing Day clash, Coleman had this to say about those in his squad who may, or not may not be, playing the injury card to avoid turning out in a Sunderland shirt:
I have to get results. It doesn’t matter if I like a player or not. Whoever is ready, whoever wants it, then let’s go.
A manager is on dodgy ground if a player says he is unfit and a manager says “you are fit”. I have never done that, I don’t know a manager who has done that. That’s not my responsibility, it’s his.
It was widely reported in the dying days of David Moyes’ tenure that there were certain individuals who had refused to take to the pitch as Sunderland limped to relegation. That culture is perhaps taking time to eradicate.
When asked by the press post-match why Ndong had not made the squad, Coleman suggested the Gabon international had taken a knock to his ankle in the 16 minutes he had played against Birmingham City three days prior.
One of the few with any significant value in the transfer market, the midfielder seems more than likely to be on his way out of the Stadium of Light exit door. The only question is whether anyone out there will be willing to match Sunderland’s valuation.
That is probably the only reason Ndong didn’t leave in the summer. The terms of the deal negotiated by David Moyes and Martin Bain to sign the reported £14m man from Lorient have long been speculated about. Certainly it seems reasonable to assume the ‘record’ purchase price was bumped up by assorted add-ons and the payment terms were no doubt lengthy.
As for Rodwell, it seems unlikely anyone else would take a punt on reviving the career of a player who of late has apparently declared himself unable to turn out in his natural midfield berth due to some unknown issue.
One national media report claimed during the week that Sunderland are weighing up the option of buying out some players from their contracts to free the club of the continued financial burden and lingering ‘losing legacy’ associated with certain individuals.
A wholesale squad rebuild will simply not be possible in Chris Coleman’s maiden transfer window next month, but the Black Cats boss will be all too aware that shipping out the ‘problems’ who refuse to be fixed may be the only way to begin making a fresh start.