Back in the summer of 2015 our (then) manager Dick Advocaat was asked about what was needed in the transfer market by Sunderland. What kind of players did we need to bring in to avoid yet another year of fighting a relegation battle?
His answer was, ‘Quality, quality... quality’.
The problem was nobody in the club hierarchy really listened to him. And nobody really looked back and took note of his words after that. Apart from a couple of exceptions under Sam Allardyce, Sunderland have for the most part recruited the opposite of Dick Advocaat’s blueprint since then – particularly under David Moyes, and in the one season we spent falling straight through the Championship.
As much and probably even more than any ‘head coach’ or manager’s impact, recruitment determines how a club will fair. And at Sunderland, largely from the latter part of Steve Bruce’s reign, it is fair to say we have sucked at it.
To say why is worthy of an article in its own right.
But going back to our Premier League days, there were stories of successive Sunderland managers only being able to bring in their fourth or fifth choice players.
Now, however, we may just have seen the end of over a decade of settling for players who will just ‘do a job for us’ or ‘get us by’ or help ‘fill up the squad’.
Everyone in the club hierarchy from the head coach up to the owner seems to be talking the right language, recognising that only a quality squad will get us out of this league.
Based on what we were watching for the last three years, I never bought into the theory that Sunderland had a squad that every other club in League One would love to have. Results, performances and final league placings had consistently shot that down.
But this transfer window has been different. There is a difference in the players brought in this summer compared to those brought in over the last three years. Nearly all of them have come from Premier League clubs, now two have come from Germany, and nearly all of them are young. Can you imagine recruitment as ambitious in the Donald era?
For the most part, the new recruits have not had a chance in the league to prove themselves yet, apart from Callum Doyle and Dennis Cirkin. It has largely been the players that were already here that have taken us to the top of the league – but even here there is a difference. Dan Neil and Elliot Embleton have come up through the ranks and have been so effective to be like two new high-quality signings themselves.
For my money, Corry Evans and Alex Pritchard have got their work cut out to displace those two from the first team.
From the point of view of new additions to the first-team squad, this has been a perfect mixture of recruiting players of our own, of bringing in loan players, and promoting players from our own youth ranks.
I have never been a fan of the loan system, at least not as it has faired down the years for Sunderland.
For starters, the obvious gripe is we bring in a player from a bigger club for a year, do a great job of developing him, and then he goes on to have a trophy/cap-laden career elsewhere. Think Danny Welbeck (both), Danny Rose (ok, not as many trophies), Marcus Alonso (still winning them!).
Then there are the players would we bring in for a year and... absolutely stink. Think Adnan Januzaj, Tyrias Browning, Ashley Fletcher, Brendan Galloway and Jake Clarke-Salter.
Yet the deal that I think has been our best move, is the (allegedly two-year) loan deal for Callum Doyle.
This is a 17-year-old that is obviously going to be real class.
If the rumours of the two years are true, Doyle really has a chance to develop and improve in buckets, and Sunderland will be the club that benefits in that time.
Two years is longer than the time we held some of our best players in our Premier League days. Darren Bent was only with us for 18 months, Asamoah Gyan and Lorik Cana for a year.
It is my opinion that if Dion Sanderson had not been injured last season, Sunderland would not have tailed off, at least not as dramatically in the final weeks of the campaign. I expect Callum Doyle to make the same impact as Sanderson– the difference is that this time if he is injured, we have quality reinforcements.
Going forward, in the real long term and I mean thinking two, three, four years down the line, if the recruitment policy is successful - and it should be - then it means only good things for the club and the fans. Nothing is proven yet, but the future looks bright.