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ONES THAT GOT AWAY: Recalling the players that Sunderland NEARLY signed under Keane & Bruce

Lewandowski, Rakatic, Mandžukić, Crouch, Dzeko - imagine what could have been if Sunderland had signed these players back when we were finding our feet in the Premier League?

US Citta di Palermo v AC Milan - TIM Cup Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

Over the years we’ve had some exciting transfer windows at Sunderland. During the Keane and Bruce years, if we signed below ten players it seemed like a quiet window. Both managers seemingly loved a good squad overhaul - and, as such we were persistently linked with a host of players.

Just for nostalgic purposes, here we will look back at few. That is to say, we won’t be recounting every rumour, but rather looking back at a few we may have forgotten, or those who came close to joining us.

The Keane Era

Roy Keane pursued so many players during his tenure here that it is easy to forget a couple of them. Of course, we all remember the David Nugent saga, the pursuit of Mido from Spurs, the ambitious attempt to bring Diego Forlan to Sunderland, and the bitter rejection at the hands of Leighton Baines - but what about the big Romanian defender, Dorin Goian?

Having impressed Keano with his performances at the 2008 European Championships, Goian was a key target and, in the words of his agent, was “determined” to join. However, despite numerous bids, the deal never went over the line.

Rumours suggested that we valued Goian at £3.5million, whilst his club insisted on £4million. Some haggling saw a bid of £3.8million receive serious consideration from Goian’s club, Steaua Bucharest, but they would only give the green light if they could recover the VAT on the deal - but then the deal fell apart, and nothing materialised.

UEFA Cup: Real Betis v Steaua Bucharest
Goian had impressed for Steaua Bucharest in the 2006 UEFA Cup.
Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

On reflection, perhaps we didn’t miss out on much. From there, Goian went on to be a bit of a journeyman - playing for Palermo for two seasons, Rangers for two seasons, and Spezia for one season before ending up at Asteras Tripoli where he remained until his retirement.

In that time he hardly pulled up any trees and never really looked capable of being a Premier League defender. It’s probably fair to say that he was a near miss.

Another defender Keane missed out on was Chris Baird. A very unspectacular, almost forgettable footballer, back in the summer of 2007 Baird was a serious target for newly-promoted Sunderland. But how close did we get? Baird reportedly asked for the transfer, a fee of £3million was agreed, and both player and agent had travelled to Wearside for talks.

However, it seems Baird turned his back on us. For some reason, not really known at the time, Baird and his agent returned to Southampton instead of completing the deal, but also without rejecting it.

They claimed to remain keen, but in hindsight, it is perhaps obvious that Baird was waiting for his preferred move. Fulham’s earlier bid of £2.5million had been rejected, but they were known to still have an interest. Sure enough, their interest firmed up and they matched our £3 million offer, and Baird chose the capital over Wearside.

So should we shed a tear over that rejection?

There’s no doubt that Baird would have been a useful option for our side. He was a versatile, reliable defender who could have covered anywhere across the backline. Equally he was almost certainly better than the likes of Greg Halford, and arguably Paul McShane. But he was not exactly “next tier”, and has spent most of his career as a bit-part Premier League player, constantly involved in relegation scraps or as a decent player in the Championship.

It would be mean to call him a near miss, but he certainly wasn’t one who got away.

Sunderland v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

The Bruce Era

Steve Bruce, like Keane, loved a transfer window and he seemed to cast our net further afield, with many Europeans and South Americans being linked to the club during his tenure.

But one tale from his era stands out - one told by our former European scout, Ian Atkins.

Whilst there is no concrete evidence for this one other than his word, Atkins suggested that we passed up on the opportunity to sign a number of players, who in the years following would certainly be regarded as ‘world class’. One of those was 22 year-old Ivan Rakitic from Schalke in Germany.

In January 2011, Rakitic was entering the final six months of his deal, and a pre-contract - as recommended by Atkins - would have cost less than £400k in compensation, or a low fee could have ensured the transfer immediately.

However, Bruce allegedly chose not to act on Atkins’ advice and the player later joined Sevilla for around £2 million.

Atletico Madrid v FC Schalke - UEFA Champions League Qualifying Round
A young Ivan Rakitic playing for Schalke.
Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

The readers certainly don’t need me to tell them about the career he has led so far. Of course no official bid was made, and the club seemingly didn’t have an interest - which of course makes his inclusion in this list a bit of a stretch - but we are left to wonder what could have been if only the club had listened to the apparent advice of their scout.

And as if missing out on Rakitic wasn’t bitter enough, Atkins names a number of others in that list too. On his Linkedin page he claims:

Notable recommended players... included the young Ivan Rakitić, Mario Mandžukić and Robert Lewandowski. All of these players were available at a combined total of c. £2 million with all extremely keen to sign for the club.

Maybe Atkins is merely doing the teenage boy thing - that is pretending he was the one who discovered Eden Hazard back in 2009 whilst playing FIFA in his room. But if not, then these deals certainly have to be regarded as ones that got away.

A few years before that, back in 2009, Bruce’s search for new strikers had led him to a number of targets, many of whom came close.

During the close to the 2008/09 season, our short-lived manager Ricky Sbragia had extensively scouted a big Bosnian striker playing for Wolfsburg. That was Edin Dzeko.

Nothing more materialised and Bruce seemingly had his own targets. The one we will all remember was Darren Bent, who we successfully brought in for a record fee, but Bruce certainly had his eye on potential partners for Bent.

The first was England international Peter Crouch. A fee of up to £12million had been agreed, and Crouch had travelled to Sunderland for talks. However, Crouch had options and as Bruce later explained, location was a big deal for him. With offers from Spurs and Fulham, he turned us down for the chance to move to the capital.

Hull City v Portsmouth - Premier League
A £12million fee had been agreed for Crouch, but he preferred a move to the capital.
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Bruce then turned his attention to Moroccan international Marouane Chamakh.

The chances of that deal going through looked pretty good; the player wanted the move, and we had the finances to meet both Chamakh’s and Bordeaux’s demands. However, there was an annoying little problem - Bordeaux’s manager Laurent Blanc.

Arrogance personified, Blanc took it upon himself to decide Sunderland weren’t big enough for Chamakh - a player whose 13 goals in Ligue 1 during the previous season hardly made him a world beater. In the end, Blanc had it his way, and blocked the move. Of course, Chamakh eventually did move to the Premier League after Arsenal rekindled their interest, and Sunderland went in to the season with a strike force of Darren Bent, Kenwyne Jones, Frazier Campbell and Roy O’Donovan.

Chamakh and Crouch both would have offered Sunderland something different. Of the two, however, Crouch is the one who got away. He has had a long career in the Premier League, being valued and utilised at almost every club for which he has played.

Chamakh on the other hand, contrary to what Blanc might have thought, has never really settled wherever he’s been since, signing short-term deals but never really settling before moving on.

All of that, of course, feels somewhat insignificant given how Darren Bent performed that season, and the following one saw the arrival of Danny Welbeck and Asamoah Gyan. The sagas of Crouch and Chamakh seem less than a distant memory.

Chelsea v Girondins de Bordeaux - UEFA Champions League
Chamakh was one of Bruce’s targets.
Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images

Things certainly could have turned out differently for both Bruce and Keane, but for better or worse? Obviously we will never know. But reading those names takes me back to what felt like simpler times.

For me, the optimism dwindled away after that, and the quick succession of managers, and the constant squad overhauls that instilled no real change hastened that. And of course, it was all downhill for us from there, as we never reached those heights again.

That said, it’s worth remembering that optimism was ignited when Keane joined Sunderland back in 2006, when we had nothing to be happy about. We found ourselves in that position again recently.

Let’s hope this new low can serve as a trigger; the last transfer window gave me more optimism and joy than any since Bruce left. The change Quinn and Keane brought transformed the club, much like what has happened with Donald and Ross. So far, so good.

Let’s hope the good times are just around the corner.

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