The interesting thing about the retained list of players published last week was the boldness, the statement of intent from the club. To start off with it seems fair to say that the coaching team and higher management see the same things that we as supporters see. There would be few arguments amongst fans that we would want to keep O’Nien, McGeady, Hume and Wyke. (Well, maybe a few more arguments about Wyke!)
However, what caught the eye were the players that were not retained. Leadbitter, Power and Scowen were largely the first-choice midfield of last season and in the case of the former two, first-choice midfielders for much of the previous two seasons.
What this says is that in the eyes of the club management, our midfield last season – and for the two seasons before – just wasn’t good enough.
From watching Sunderland throughout our time in League One it is something that I would not argue with. The players that have been in there have done a job, game by game, in each season. But you couldn’t say that we’ve controlled midfield, week in, week out, for a sustained run of games.
The departure of Scowen, a player recruited from the Championship, prompted some fans to lament his loss because of the energy he brought to the midfield. But had very little end product and gave the ball away too much at times. He was typical of many of the players that have been recruited over the last three seasons. Not bad players by far, but average for League One. Good enough to get a game, to do a job, but not outstanding. Not good enough to be the best players on the pitch in any given game.
There is an often-used phrase that the top managers roll out when asked to explain the reason(s) for their success. It goes something like, ‘I have always been lucky to have been surrounded by fantastic players’.
There is no luck involved.
The most successful teams recruit the best players.
Yet at Sunderland, where the ambition is to be the best team in League One in order to attain promotion, there seems to have been a mindset of ‘he will do a job’ when it came to recruiting players.
I have never bought into the theory that with our players we should have walked this league. The table doesn’t lie and after three seasons and three different managers, it never has.
At only one point back in late 2018 and then for one game later in that season have we occupied an automatic promotion spot, and we have never topped the league – let alone looked like walking it.
Across the three seasons if you want to look at the players that we should be walking the league with, then for every Willis we have recruited an Ozturk, a Baldwin, a Loovens, or a Joel Lynch and I am going to include Tom Flanagan. I haven't been particularly impressed by Bailey Wright this season, even before the injury that kept him out for weeks. Not bad players - if they were we would have been in trouble at the wrong end of the table. You can say they were honest and never ducked a battle, but only average for League One.
To go on, for every Maja we have had a Grigg, the first two seasons of Charlie Wyke, an Aiden O’Brien, a Danny Graham, or a McNulty. At full-back we have become progressively weaker through the last three seasons, starting with the like of Matthews, James and Oviedo but when they left then recruiting the likes of De Bock or McFadzean - a player to cover Denver Hume when he was injured yet ended up playing more games than him. We’ve spent most of the last three seasons playing without a recognised right back in the team.
Any of these players have had long and significant spells of starting in the first team.
If Sunderland in any week last season had a starting line up with what you would say three or four ‘great players’ we also had the same amount of bang average players in the side and it has been the same story across our tenure of League One.
In letting so many and, in some cases, first-choice players go, it appears that the club management shares the same sentiment.
The next few weeks will be the most telling, as this is the time to secure any first-choice targets. And with the decks largely cleared, Sunderland need a lot of first-choice targets. It is what the most successful teams do. No more players who ‘will do a job for us’. No more ‘squad fillers’.
Look at Peterborough. They lost the best striker in League One – Ivan Toney – at the end of last season. They did their homework on his replacement – Jonson Clarke-Harris – and his 31 goals fired them to promotion.
To wait until the last weeks of the transfer window means that all that is left to choose from is the manager’s or recruitment team’s fourth or fifth choice players.
A mistake we’ve made many times before, and which has greatly contributed to being where we are today.