When the fan collective statement - including Roker Report, A Love Supreme, WMS Podcast and Red & White Army - released at the end of December urged Sunderland’s owners to sell the club, it then led to a series of statements from the club’s hierarchy in retaliation.
Firstly, Stewart Donald appeared on BBC Radio Newcastle’s Totalsport show, in which he answered questions put to him by Simon Pryde, confirming his intentions to strengthen Sunderland’s squad during the January transfer window.
Most pertinently, he said:
The fans have raised concerns abut strengthening in January and we absolutely will.
This was, of course, before a single player had come through the door.
Then, on the 7th January, came an official statement on SAFC.com, which outlined the intentions of the club’s owners once again to sell their stake to a suitable buyer in due course, and included the reaffirmation that any potential sale would not affect our January transfer business. In the statement, referencing a meeting Stewart Donald had with the supporters’ collective some weeks prior, it said:
Mr Donald apologised for a poor run of results but shared his staff’s confidence that first team form would improve due to two key factors - higher fitness levels as the new management team’s conditioning program bedded in; and the January transfer window, in which he was expecting to invest significantly.
Donald himself went on record with comments within the statement, pledging to back Phil Parkinson in improving the first team squad with “sufficient funds”:
We would like to place on record our thanks for the wonderful support we have received from SAFC’s phenomenal supporters.
We would also like to reassure those loyal fans that we are placing sufficient funds in the club to support the manager as he seeks to improve the first team in the next few weeks.
Finally, I just ask that fans now unite to support the players and the coaching staff.
Both the statement and the quote from Donald were clear regarding the club’s stance going into the transfer window - the club’s owner was, regardless of any potential sale, going to invest in the first team squad over the ensuing weeks.
The question, then, is relatively straightforward - did Donald stick to his word, and did he support the manager in order improve the first team?
Very few details on the transfers Sunderland completed are available, but what we do know is that we signed three players on loan, one free agent, and one permanent - in effect, buying out the last six months of his contract at his previous club, which was due to expire this coming summer.
Despite not knowing full details, you can hazard that the club are paying some of the wages for the players who have arrived on loan; that we gave Kyle Lafferty a decent wage - by League One standards, anyways - to persuade him to come here ahead of a move back to Hearts; and that we’ve assumed the majority, if not all, of what QPR were paying Josh Scowen - more than likely a decent Championship wage.
We may have even paid small fees for some, if not all of the loan players, and the fee paid to sign Scowen was ‘undisclosed’ - though, with the player entering the final stretch of his contract, you can’t imagine that it would have been for an awful lot of money.
The club also lost several players - Lee Connelly and Aiden McGeady left on loan, and Dylan McGeouch was allowed to join Aberdeen on a permanent basis. Laurens De Bock and Marc McNulty also saw their loan deals cancelled.
You’d imagine that we have in fact reduced our wage bill as a result of the business done during this window, which if true is a win for the club in the sense that it puts us in better shape financially over the coming months.
Does three loans, a free agent and someone entering the last six months of their contract constitute sufficient investment? I guess that’s entirely up for debate.
What was important was that we 1) were able to bring in the players that the manager felt would strengthen his squad, and 2) come out of the window better than we went into it.
That, of course, is impossible to judge just yet. It’s unlikely that all five of Sunderland’s January acquisitions are going to be a complete success, but you have to hope that most of them will be able to have a significant contribution towards how we perform between now and the end of the season. What is of concern is that none of the players arrive at Sunderland having played on a regular basis this season. All of them need time to get up to scratch, which isn’t particularly ideal when you’re hoping for an immediate boost.
I have gripes over just how well we strengthened our hand, but they are minor ones. I still feel we don’t have enough firepower up front, and it feels as though the failure to sign Liam Boyce from Burton was a missed opportunity.
Here was an in-form, proven League One goalscorer, of a good age, available for a relatively small sum of money. It took just £150,000 for Hearts to lure him from Burton Albion’s grasp, and he’s repaid them with two goals in his first two appearances for the club, thus proving he was a worthwhile acquisition.
We’re also vulnerable on our right hand side.
God forbid it, but if Luke O’Nien picks up an injury that keeps him out for a significant length of time, we’ll be short in an important position. We have nobody else who can play right wing back - his back up in that position, Conor McLaughlin, has failed to impress since arriving in the summer, and would look even more exposed if asked to play in an advanced role that requires lots of energy and creative productivity.
And, there are some fans who are concerned about the sheer amount of players who will see their contracts expire in the summer - Phil Smith of the Sunderland Echo wrote today about the matter, highlighting that fourteen current first teamers are entering the final stretch of their deals. That potentially leaves the manager with a massive rebuilding job in the summer, regardless of what league we find ourselves in.
It’s not really about what you spend, but how you spend it.
Donald did indeed invest significantly last January, mainly in the form of Will Grigg, and that particular transfer has been an unmitigated disaster. Money doesn’t always equate to success in football - and, it’d be unfair to judge any of the players we’ve signed, particularly since none of them have really had a big enough chance to prove their worth.
There are many ways to spin what Stewart Donald said about his intentions to invest during the January window. As I’ve said previously, we may be told that this includes the contributions towards wages, signing on fees and bonuses.
We’re likely never going to find out just how much was invested during this window, or what the ten million pound loan gifted to the club’s owners by FPP Sunderland Ltd is intended for. Whilst it was never promised that the money would be used to buy players during the transfer window, some fans, journalists and indeed pundits had hoped we’d see the club sign players for fees that would be able to make an immediate impact on the team.
Despite Stewart Donald’s promises of ‘significant investment’ in the transfer market during his meeting with the supporters’ collective, it doesn’t feel as though he’s been particularly true to his word. The players we’ve moved on will have undoubtedly reduced the club’s wage bill, and I understand the importance of being financially stable, particularly at the level we’re at, but I just hope that we’ve not cut corners at the expense of the playing squad and its ability to cope with what is to come.
To me, significant or sufficient investment would have included the signing of good players who, like Liam Boyce, would be arriving at the club fit, in form and firing. You could perhaps suggest that the reason pretty much none of Sunderland’s January signings in 2019 worked out is because none of them had been starting games regularly for their previous clubs.
What was important was that we signed players who were going to kick this team up a notch, and improve our form even further so that we meet the target set by the club’s owners in pre-season - to gain automatic promotion back to the Championship. Let’s just hope that the same can’t be said for 2020’s intake, all of whom will be desperate to impress.