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Neither ‘Udinese’ nor ‘Brentford’ – but always Sunderland

Was this the transfer window in which Sunderland established itself as an attractive prospect in its own right?

Photo by Charlotte Tattersall - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Amid the many promising signs that the new regime at Sunderland may be on to something, the club’s canny, measured management of this summer’s transfer business really stands out.

The whole process felt less needy and desperate, more calculating and confident.

Rather than making the target of our affections publicly known and embarking upon a humiliating, summer-long courting ritual that only served to strengthen the hand of the player and selling club, this summer was noticeable for the club’s refusal to indulge the media’s insatiable thirst for transfer gossip.

Instead, with cards held close to their chest, most signings seemed to wrong-foot the transfer market cognoscenti by being announced with little prior speculation.

Blackpool v Sunderland - Carabao Cup Second Round
Niall Huggins was just one who arrived after little speculation
Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Yet this was no scattergun approach to transfers with a media blindsided by baffling curveballs. If the targets remained under the radar, it’s because they seemed unattainable and unfeasible for a League One club with Sunderland’s history in transfer dealings.

Unconcerned with headlines, but inadvertently generating them through the apparent quality brought in, we eschewed both the approach of lavish expenditure on a marquee (by League One standards) signing – for example, Will Grigg – and the prioritisation of proven League One players (the guiding principle of our transfer business in League One thus far).

Both these strategies had an understandable logic in the past, which explains why some of our rivals have adopted them this year, but they certainly haven’t aged well up in Sunderland.

In their place, beside the well-publicised influence of data metrics, emerged a club newly positioning itself as the go-to destination for youth development. It felt like the Sunderland offer to clubs and players had moved beyond the transient transaction of transfer fee and wages, so often inflated out of desperation, and towards a more professional, immersive environment for players to fulfil their potential.

In short, it felt like this was the transfer window in which Sunderland established itself as an attractive prospect in its own right. Rather than throwing money around as if we were an unfashionable club that needed to offer compensatory inducements to players, this window saw Sunderland finally salvage its self-respect and dignity.

Milton Keynes Dons v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Dennis Cirkin turned down a contract at Spurs in favour of joining Sunderland
Photo by John Cripps/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For too often, transfer business has acted as a kind of displacement activity in which the club’s overall success or failure is determined by its ability to generate headlines and satisfy the demands of fans and media alike, rather than being determined by what happens on match day.

A seemingly disappointing transfer window is of little consequence if performances and results belie its supposed inadequacies. Likewise, a promising window counts for little if it’s not reflected in concrete progress.

Reassuringly, there are early signs of substance to complement the undoubted style of our summer business.

Disturbingly though, my optimism following this summer’s recruitment eerily echoes the way I felt in the summer of 2013.

On the face of it, the transfer windows in the summer of 2013 and 2021 couldn’t be further apart. Even with the benefit of hindsight, or maybe because of it, there appeared to be little in the way of a coherent, logical recruitment strategy under De Fanti and Angeloni beyond having a more prominent Italian contingent among the new recruits.

Yet the 2013/14 pre-season Asia Trophy in Hong Kong suggested the much-heralded ‘Udinese model’ could have legs. With both Cabral and Moberg Karlsson scoring in a convincing victory against Spurs, the latter also getting an assist, there was enough evidence to dispel any early doubts about the wisdom of the new recruitment system.

Throw in the excitement generated by the obligatory YouTube footage of Giaccherini and Altidore, as well as two of our best loan signings in Ki and Borini, and it’s no wonder that expectations for the coming season ran far ahead of the eventual reality.

Tottenham Hotspur v Sunderland - Barclays Asia Trophy: Semi Final
Cabral impressed during his pre-season
Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

It’s embarrassing to admit how optimistic I was about what turned out to be a much-maligned, rightly so, summer of transfer business.

I could put it down to sleeplessness and a profound perspective shift, being in the first few months of fatherhood at the time, but the truth was that Sunderland needed this throw of the dice to work out. It didn’t and the rest is history.

De Fanti has since attempted to justify that summer’s business and much of what he’s said is unsurprising self-exculpation. Yet he’s got a point when defending himself from the charge of reckless spending. Sure, there was a wide range of incomings but, given we were in a stage of transition, the transfer expense was fairly moderate by the standards of a Premier League club.

In some ways, the experiment was a reaction to the heavy outlay on a small number of what were perceived to be overpriced British players such as Fletcher and Johnson. ‘Get more for less’ seemed to be the mantra in 2013.

Manchester City v Sunderland - Premier League
Fletcher was one of a few highly-priced English-based players that we’d signed in previous seasons and hadn’t really worked out
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

The subsequent failure of this strategy led to the flawed assumption that ‘you get what you pay for’ which, taken to its illogical conclusion, saw us shelling out £18 million on Didier Ndong. Even if the club hadn’t seen the error of its ways, circumstances in the form of League One financial restraints forced us to do so and the circle was squared by retreating to the slapdash approach of 2013 but on a shoestring budget.

So this summer’s transfer business represented a fresh start and a new approach in much the same way as 2013, with the need to get it right being just as pivotal.

Then, as now, we were embarking on a new structure with a Director of Football taking on a similar role to Speakman as Sporting Director. There was a similar, though much less obvious, emphasis on youth through the signings of Mavrias and Moberg Karlsson, as well as a host of players approaching their peak years, creating the enticing prospect of Sunderland being the club that would unleash their obvious potential.

Yet I’m confident that’s where the similarities will end.

2013 represented a limited revolution in many ways, confined to the arena of transfers. The KLD agenda is much more wide-ranging, encompassing not just the first team but the Academy and Sunderland Ladies. It envisages a cultural shift, at all levels of the club, and reflected in its playing style, far more profound than the dictatorial drill-instructor act that Di Canio brought to first-team football management.

Sunderland’s long-term success will depend on much more than our successful summer recruitment but, as foundations go, it’s certainly a promising base from which to build.

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