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Ndong to Watford back on & West Ham interested too? Why it just hasn’t worked out at Sunderland

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Didier Ndong could yet be lured away from the Stadium of Light before the transfer window shuts. But why hasn’t it worked out for Sunderland’s record signing since his move to English football in 2016?

Cardiff City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Reports in the press continue to claim Watford will return to Sunderland with a bid for Didier Ndong before the transfer window closes, with West Ham also enquiring after the Black Cats midfielder.

A Wednesday departure would bring down the curtain on a thoroughly underwhelming stint on Wearside for the 23-year-old, who became Sunderland’s record signing seventeen months ago.

Signed by David Moyes in the dying hours of deadline day in August 2016, Ndong had turned down offers from Spartak Moscow and from Torino before opting to chance his arm in the Premier League with Sunderland.

The Black Cats had been linked with Ndong earlier that summer - when Sam Allardyce was still at the helm at the Stadium of Light - but it took a significant wedge of cash to convince Lorient to sell as the dying hours of the transfer window ticked down.

Paris Saint-Germain FC v FC Lorient - Ligue 1
Ndong playing for Lorient in 2015
Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images

As it happened, both Sunderland and Lorient would go on to be relegated from the top tiers of their respective countries by the end of Ndong’s first season in England; the former ending a ten year stint in the Premier League and the latter an eleven year spell in Ligue 1.

Lorient president Loïc Fery would subsequently face anger from the club’s supporters for having sold his side’s best player without a replacement being lined up.

The hefty fee - reported as €20m - appeared to be too good to turn down, but it’s never been entirely clear how much of it was made up of future performance-related bonuses.

Ndong had arrived at Lorient in January 2015 from CS Sfaxien. He had had made his debut in the Tunisian league as an 18-year-old after being discovered in his native Gabon by retired defender-turned-agent Khaled Badra.

FBL-AFR-C2-TUNISIA-CONGO
Ndong playing for CS Sfaxian in 2013
Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Offered initially to Badra’s former club Espérance, CS Sfaxien nipped in to sign him after the Tunis-based side had wavered and insisted Ndong undergo a trial first.

Already playing with the Gabon national team who were headed for the 2012 Olympics, the Sfax side were famed for their success in youth development and immediately snapped Ndong up without running the rule over him first.

So grateful has the player been for the break he got in Tunisia, Ndong recently set up a football club in Gabon who play in the same jerseys as CS Sfaxian and have a near-identical badge to the club of his youth.

Ndong made his debut for Sunderland in a disastrous 3-0 defeat at the hands of Everton at the Stadium of Light. That September 2016 bow neatly set the tone for the player’s stint on Wearside.

Sunderland v Everton - Premier League
Ndong on his Sunderland debut
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

As Moyes’ team made history for the worst ever start in Premier League history, Ndong struggled to adapt to English football. The Gabon international displayed plenty of energy but in possession he simply made little impact on games - though a tendency to play the easy option meant his passing stats remained decent.

As Christmas rolled around, Ndong perked up ahead of the African Cup of Nations and his final game before the tournament marked his best performance in a Sunderland shirt against Liverpool at the Stadium of Light at the turn of the year.

Upon his return from Gabon there were precious few highlights bar a first and only league goal of the season in the 4-0 fluke win at Crystal Palace. Ndong continued to be an underwhelming regular in the side as David Moyes led Sunderland into the Championship but no one impressed as the Black Cats endured defeat after defeat after defeat.

There have been suggestions the player took relegation badly - arriving as a record signing ahead of a disaster of a season. But in truth Ndong has barely impacted on the second tier in a division he was supposed to stamp his mark upon.

Possibly frustrated at being unable to move on last summer, there have been hints of behind-the-scenes issues in recent months with a player who has made headlines for off-field misdemeanors when on international duty on several occasions.