Rewind back the the bizarre summer of 2013 with me for a second.
With Roberto De Fanti joining Paolo Di Canio at the club we experienced something of an Italian revolution, in what was an exciting yet unexpected few months for Sunderland supporters. Seeing us linked with players from far-flung areas of Europe felt daunting yet alluring, with names like Edinson Cavani and Lorenzo Insigne cropping up on more than one occasion.
It was a strange pre-season that included only five friendlies, with two of them taking place in Hong Kong for as part of the Premier League Trophy - the highlight of which saw new signing Cabral deliver a master-class on a ploughed field against Tottenham Hotspur.
No longer would we spend lavish amounts of over-hyped, over-paid British tripe - instead we would scour the continent, unearthing hidden gems at knock-down prices. It all seemed like a good idea at the time. Except it didn’t quite work out the way Roberto, Ellis, Paolo or indeed ourselves expected it to. Infact, it went completely tits up.
Di Canio was gone within five games, De Fanti followed by the year’s end and Sunderland sat bottom of the league for the majority of the campaign. Wembley heroics and the eventual great escape aside, it wasn’t the campaign many were hoping for.
But if De Fanti’s original targets had came off, how different could it have been?
Benjamin Mendy, then an 18-year-old at Le Havre, met with club officials at the Stadium of Light after we agreed upon a fee of €6m in early July.
Mendy was so close, in fact, that he was pictured outside of the entrance to our Stadium posing for a fan. The player himself tweeted a photo from the inside Ellis Short’s private jet.
Unfortunately for ourselves, French club Marseille matched our offer late in the day - making it an easy decision for the defender who, instead of moving to the North East of England, opted for Champions League football on the south coast of France. In true Sunderland fashion we opted to sign Andrea Dossena and Ondrej Celustka instead.
The now-Manchester City defender joined a list of players that we actively pursued that summer but were unable to secure that included the likes of Gino Peruzzi, Tom Huddlestone and even Romelu Lukaku, who was available for loan and very much a viable option.
In 2015, De Fanti spoke at length about his calamitous spell with Sunderland, citing a number of reasons for why things didn’t go to plan. He said:
When I came in the situation was a disaster. We only had 12 or 13 players under contract that Paolo considered at Premier League level. Nine would be out of contract in one year and we had to rebuild a team.
No players were emerging from the academy. Bardsley and Cattermole were outcasted by Paolo and Ellis decided that, because of financial fair play rules, the things that had been going on in the past were not proper and had to be dealt with differently. 11 players were on loan or free.
He further stated he simply wasn’t afforded the spending power to change the nucleus of the squad which he claimed needed to be “built from scratch”. Of course, these claims were later dismissed by the club as fabrication - and it’s not beyond De Fanti to grossly exaggerate the truth. The point stands though that many of his targets during his time at the club have gone on to have terrific careers and we could have been looking at a vastly different Sunderland to the one we see now. If his real job was to reduce costs and bring in good value players as an alternative, then Roberto De Fanti’s failure was not in his horrendous purchases of Modibo Diakite, Charis Mavrias and Jozy Altidore, but his failure to have carefully scouted, well thought-out alternative options to his primary transfer targets.
With Mendy now officially the world’s most expensive defender, Romelu Lukaku being sold to Manchester United for £75m and Gino Peruzzi winning his second of two titles in his native Argentina just a few months ago, it would be fair to say that things could have most certainly gone better for us had all of the stars aligned that summer.
And the others...
Heavily linked to us that summer before eventually moving to Sampdoria, the current Southampton forward tore our defence to shreds last February during a 0-4 home defeat. Full Italian international.
Still a star at Napoli, still scoring goals for fun from midfield and still rated as one of the best prospects in Italian football.
A move that was craved by Paolo Di Canio, the former Spurs star went on to play for Hull for over four seasons and was a mainstay in their side. He has since suffered a dip in form and signed for Derby this summer.
Linked with the Lads again last season, the former Wigan moved man opted to move to Everton for big money instead of move further north to join Sunderland. Although he originally impressed on Merseyside, his career has stagnated recently.