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Be careful what you wish for... Sunderland’s most memorable downgrades! (Part One)

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James Chapman looks back at the times when Sunderland downgraded their squad by letting their star players leave, only to bring in dreadful replacements.

Manchester United v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

While listening to Vito Mannone on this week’s Roker Rapport Podcast something occurred to me - we finished the 2016/17 season with two good goalkeepers, and yet we started the next season with two horrific clowns who could barely call themselves goalkeepers.

What an immense downgrade that was! It made me wonder about all the other times Sunderland had good players who for one reason or another left the club only to be replaced by a far inferior player.

So, this is Sunderland’s most memorable downgrades.

And first, let’s look at those keepers a little more closely.


Mannone/Pickford > Steele/Ruiter

Following our relegation at the end of the 2016/17 season, Sunderland were left with one cracking keeper and his very capable understudy.

Jordan Pickford had taken the number one jersey that season and looked destined for the very top. Despite a leaky defence, he had come out of the season with a lot of credibility. A great shot-stopper, decent aerial and box control, and phenomenal with the ball at his feet.

The young man seemed like the perfect modern-day keeper.

Behind him was the more experienced Vito Mannone. With decent game time at Arsenal and Hull City, as well as over sixty appearances for ourselves, Vito had proven to be a very solid if unspectacular goalkeeper. He had stepped up when needed and even enjoyed a lot of time as number one here. Sunderland’s goalkeeper situation seemed comfortable.

Swansea City v Sunderland - Premier League
Sunderland fans didn’t realise just how much they would go on to miss Pickford and Mannone.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Of course relegation was always going to change that. We were never going to be able to keep hold of Pickford, and in fact we did reasonably well to get over £30 million for the two of them. What followed however was nothing short of a disaster.

Mannone’s and Pickford’s replacements were Robbin Ruiter and Jason Steele. The former was relatively unknown and arrived on a free from his native Netherlands. The latter joined for half a million pounds, and in truth he had never been very good. But once they pulled on the Sunderland jersey, any ability they had vanished.

Maybe that’s a little harsh on Ruiter. At times he looked like a good keeper, but he had some truly bad games here. However, he might have found some decent form had his season not have been so disrupted by injury.

But even on a bad day Ruiter was better than his goalkeeping rival. For Steele, comedy shows followed horror shows which followed tragedies - on repeat. Sunderland fans didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or hide their eyes at the spectacle this man trying to keep goal.

And let’s not even get started on Lee Camp when he eventually showed up. How on earth we found a worse keeper than Steele I will never know. Had we signed a decently competent keeper we might have stayed in the Championship that season.

Queens Park Rangers v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Jack Thomas/Getty Images

Yann M’Vila > Didier Ndong

So this one is sort of obvious, isn’t it?

M’Vila was a terrific player, perhaps one of the centre-midfielders I’ve seen at Sunderland in my lifetime. Signed from Rubin Kazan on a season-long loan, M’Vila looked like the player Sunderland had long desired in the centre of the park. He offered high energy, he was a good passer, he was strong in the tackle and he was physical.

He was a real all-rounder, and he was exactly what we needed.

Yet at the end of the season, Sunderland’s chiefs decided not to take up the option of a permanent deal. The rumoured agreed fee was around £8 million, which would have been a bargain for a player like Yann. An infamous Instagram post followed which highlighted Yann’s despair. A top midfielder, desperate to play for the club, available at a good price and we turned him down.

Yann M’Vila was desperate to sign for Sunderland.

But fear not! For Moyes and Sunderland’s hierarchy had the ideal replacement.

Enter - Didier Ndong.

The memory of Ndong still lingers in our minds. Signed for a higher fee than that of M’Vila - a club record £13.6 million - the Gabonese midfielder was an inadequate replacement for M’Vila’s shadow, let alone the man himself. With no real strengths of note - poor passing, a clumsy first touch, an abysmal attitude - Ndong is surely one of the worst signings we have ever made.

Maybe it was to do with M’Vila’s wage demands? Or perhaps Ndong was just a panic signing after Moyes and co realised they had left themselves criminally short in the centre of the park? Whatever the reason, why anyone would choose Ndong or M’Vila is unfathomable.

To replace a player of M’Vila’s calibre with him is nothing short of criminal.

Bury v Sunderland - Carabao Cup First Round Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Gyan/Bent/Welbeck > Wickham/Ji/Bendtner

Yes, Darren Bent left in the January but he still gets roped into this. Up top alongside Danny Welbeck and Asamoah Gyan, Bent was goals in the bank. The front three were terrifically exciting, with speed and skill in abundance. Despite Bent’s departure, and injuries to Gyan and Welbeck in the latter half of the season, they finished with a combined total of 24 goals. Not bad at all.

Yet by the end of the 2011 summer transfer window all three were gone (albeit Gyan’s departure was a few days later). Bent of course had already left, Welbeck’s loan ended and he returned to Manchester United, and Asamoah Gyan scuttled off to Abu Dhabi for a fatter paycheck. Of course it was a setback, but Sunderland had raked in well over £20 million from the sales, which back then wasn’t bad business.

So it was just a case of spending that money well. In came youngsters Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-won, and Nicklas Bendtner joined on a season-long loan.

The latter was clearly a talented footballer, but his ability was constantly at war with his ego. Unfortunately for Sunderland and himself, the latter won more often than not. That said, he still racked up a decently impressive eight goals in twenty-eight games.

Sunderland v Carlisle United - FA Cup Third Round
Ji Dong-won was a bit useless for Sunderland.
Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Wickham and Ji were less impressive.

Yes, they were signed with one eye on the future, but they looked hopeless at Premier League level. Ji, despite having decent technique and pleasing footwork was cowardly on the pitch, rarely looking capable of holding his own against opponents.

Wickham wasn’t much better. For a lad of his height and build, he was incredibly soft and never looked like the powerful forward we had hoped for. Between the three of them, they netted only eleven goals in the 2011/12 season.

Losing three players like Bent, Gyan and Welbeck, with all the goals, speed and creativity they offered in the final third, and replacing them with three forwards who between them could only manage eleven goals is truly woeful.

It’s my opinion that this was the start of Steve Bruce’s downfall as Sunderland manager. Had he spent wisely, as he had in the past with the likes of Gyan, Bent, Lorik Cana, and a young up-and-coming Lee Cattermole, then his tenure could have been greatly longer.

Check back tomorrow for part two!