Right back at the start of the season, Sunderland owner Stewart Donald confirmed in an interview that an ‘expansion’ of the club’s recruitment team had begun, with the appointment of several new bodies made to shore up Tony Coton’s wafer-thin scouting network.
Plans were put in place, we were told, in order to prepare us properly for the upcoming transfer window. With new scouts on board, the expectancy was that Sunderland would approach January far better prepared than they had been in any of the three previous windows since Stewart Donald took over the club.
After stripping back the club’s operational structure from top to bottom upon taking over, crucial steps were apparently being taken to ensure Sunderland were in a far healthier position to recruit properly - thus ensuring we had a squad in place that was capable of achieving the end-goal of promotion back to the Championship.
Hundreds and hundreds of hours of games have been studied, with the club even employing a scout to watch games over in Scandanavia. Led by Tony Coton, it was hoped with this new team in place that it’d be fourth time lucky, with the clear remit being to strengthen a squad lacking in depth and diversity.
So what has been the sum total of their work so far, entering the third week of January?
Kyle Lafferty. One signing - a free agent, someone widely known within the game.
Anyone, realistically, could have identified Lafferty - you wouldn’t really need to scout him to find out about what he’s capable of. Phil Parkinson likely knew all about Kyle; he’ll have spoken to friends in the game who have worked with him previously. I think it’s fair to suggest that the signing of a free agent striker who is widely known within football did not come as the result of intensive scouting by our recruitment team.
Am I wrong, then, for expecting more?
To me, it’s yet another example of the owner setting a level of expectation in his comments in the public arena, only for the club’s actions to fail to back them up.
Part of me feels bad for digging them out when the window hasn’t even closed yet, but after three windows that can only be deemed a failure I have to wonder why I feel as though we’ve been totally unprepared - once again - for January. It’s been fairly apparent since late September what this squad was lacking, yet evidence would suggest we had nothing much in the way of fresh blood lined up upon the window re-opening.
We knew we’d have six games to play in January, and seven to play in February.
Therefore, I feel that it was vitally important to ensure that we were ready for one of the most testing periods in the season, by adequately-equipping the manager with the players that he needed as early as we possibly could.
I don’t think that it’d be overdramatic for me to suggest that we’re an injury to Denver Hume, Max Power or Lynden Gooch away from crisis. We lack depth.
The market we’re shopping in is one largely filled with free agents and loanees; players who haven’t been playing a lot of football this season, the majority of whom are unlikely be fit enough to make an immediate impact upon their arrival in our team.
Say Sunderland sign two or three players in the final few days of the window, like we did last January - at what stage can we then realistically expect them to make an impact in first team games? If they aren’t fit, it could be late February before they’re even considered for selection - and we have an awful lot of football to play before we get to the end of next month, vital games that will likely decide Sunderland’s promotion fate.
I know that there will be excuses - flimsy ones at that - pointing to the fact that “clubs just don’t do that much business early in the window”, and that “it’s a seller’s market - you’ll end up paying a premium if you budge early”, but we were told very early in the season, by our owner, that moves were being made to ensure the club’s recruitment would be better. We were told that money will be spent in order to strengthen Parkinson’s side.
Better, to me, is having several players lined up ready to sign early in the month.
Better, to me, is having a clear and obvious plan for recruitment.
Better, to me, is seeking out the players you want to sign. It’s meeting them early and showcasing the club to them in a bid to win them over. It’s identifying the clear weaknesses in your squad and being confident that you are going to address them properly.
Therefore, are Sunderland any better prepared for this transfer window than they have been in any of the other three since Sunderland plunged into League One?
The evidence suggests we’re not.
This recruitment team has been placed under a microscope - and rightly so - because time and again they’ve shown themselves up as inadequate. The rushed, unplanned, often-erratic nature of our actions in each window have shown that they’re not up to scratch, in my opinion.
Sunderland AFC is a huge club, and as supporters I think we’ve earned the right to demand the best from every single person in a position of power. We should expect the best of EVERYTHING when it comes to being a League One club, and with the resources we have - with the ability to outspend, both in terms of fees and wages, any other team in the division - is it completely unreasonable to expect that we’d be the best prepared club in the league going into a crucial transfer window, one that may well make or break our season?
This is precisely why I bang on and on about the club’s leadership structure not being up to scratch. This is why I believe that Sunderland need a Director of Football. This is why our scouts, Tony Coton et al, should be answerable to someone employed by the club with the remit to plan, structure and shape Sunderland’s squad to the highest possible standards.
Do we have a plan? Do we have a set of standards that we work to?
If we did I don’t believe that I’d be sat lamenting the fact we’re three weeks into the transfer window, and have yet to adequately strengthen a squad that we’ve known has needed strengthening for the best part of three or four months.
There’s still plenty of time left before the window closes, but I really hoped that this window would be different, and that we’d have several players already through the door and involved with the first team both on the training pitch and in League One games. Sadly, there doesn’t appear to have been any forward-planning or change of approach.
I sincerely hope they prove me wrong, and serious moves are made to strengthen the squad with good players that address the deficiencies we have in the team, but I won’t hold my breath.
For as long as Sunderland’s owner continues to ignore the issues with structure - particularly on the footballing side of the club - I fear that we’ll always appear ill-prepared going into any given transfer window, something which can have serious implications on the pitch when you’re expecting the manager to continue to work with a squad being stretched to its limits.
The sooner these issues are properly addressed, and a Director of Football is appointed at the football club, the sooner we’ll see real forward-planning and change.