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What we most wish for is what we most fear: separation anxiety, Sunderland-style

Will the time ever feel right to part with our star assets?

Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Deep down we all knew the day would come. In fact, without consciously willing it, we actually hoped it would come. We may not have actively craved covetous glances being directed towards our most favoured players but we definitely, obviously wanted them to be successful and, in the end, isn’t that the same thing?

Under previous owners there was always the expectation that we’d keep our best, most consistently performing assets but we can’t claim to be labouring under similar illusions with the current setup at Sunderland. We were warned well in advance. Whether received sceptically, reluctantly or zealously, the message was crystal clear: talent would be scouted, developed and eventually sold on to ensure the long-term sustainability of the club.

Maybe it’s a sign of how far we’d fallen at the time but the implicit, hard-nosed business logic made perfect sense to me. Maybe I’d forgotten what it felt like to have invested hopes and expectations not just in the club itself but in the principal playing staff of the day. The seasonal churn of players and habitual failure that epitomised our fall from the EPL and unwanted residency in League One meant that priceless, unsellable but in a good way, assets were few and far between. How easy it was then to accept the Faustian bargain of a process that aimed to deliver the type of players we’d longed for on condition that they be sold at an indeterminate point of expected maximum value in the future.

It was even easier to embrace this when the model appeared to be one of delayed gratification. The sheer long-term nature of the project meant a reckoning, for fans, with the more difficult side of what this entailed could likewise be delayed. Patience was the buzzword, as if all that was needed was for fans to temper their expectations and to put trust in the new model. Sure, there will be a few failures and bumps in the road but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

However, the apparent ease with which we’ve adapted to the step up to the Championship suggests patience was possibly inaccurately prioritised over preparing ourselves for the day on which those responsible for such unexpectedly swift success may be moved on. That day may not be right now (though, after beginning to write this, rumours of interest in Ross Stewart abound) but, like the January reckoning with the indulgences of the festive period, it is certainly close to hand.

Patience I was prepared for but having witnessed some of the best football by a Sunderland team in decades I’m finding it harder to accept what was abundantly clear from the start: namely that success is measured in our selling of successfully developed players.

Sunderland Announce New Signing Ross Stewart
Buying low cost, young players with potential, developing, selling and reinvesting is the model we currently have. We’ve done the first two bits well - when and how we do the second two remains to be seen
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

It’s been a long time since there were a number of Sunderland players that I’d be genuinely gutted to see leave. Knowing when to sell a player is surely as important to the effective running of a football club as knowing when to buy one. And selling them at their peak value must surely count as the right time. Yet such number-crunching business acumen is difficult to reconcile with the emotional bonds, however unreciprocated we know them to be, between fans and players.

Nonetheless, just as the impressive transfer record of investing in young talent under the current regime compares favourably with that of the previous decade, it’s reasonable to assume that our approach to the retain or sell dilemma could similarly avoid the mistakes of the past. For too long it’s felt like we’ve sold our better players from a position of weakness, with lower income generated as a result. I suspect there have been other times when wage structures have been jettisoned to retain players, breeding only disgruntlement within the wider squad and disincentivising the recipient of the club’s excessive largesse through guaranteed reward regardless of performance.

There are very few examples that spring to mind of us being in a position to sell a player from a position of strength. Two are Michael Bridges, who was sold, and Lamine Koné, who wasn’t despite strong interest from Everton in August 2016. In both cases my heart baulked at the prospect of a sale but my head more than entertained the idea. The money offered was sizeable and reflected the fact that we had no need to sell. Bridges was an undoubted talent but with Phillips and Quinn spearheading our attack we could afford to cash in. Koné was a colossus at the back end of the 2015-16 season and it looked like we had a major asset on our hands. In hindsight, the money would’ve been preferable.

FBL-ENG-PR-SUNDERLAND-CHELSEA
Should have sold him, in hindsight
Photo credit should read OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

Obviously I’ll never be excited at the prospect of getting rid of our better players but there’s enough to help me, and hopefully others, become gradually reconciled to its inevitability. Whereas in the past it was wholly understandable to consider a quality player in the hand to be worth far more than multi millions in the transfer kitty, those currently in charge of recruitment have shown that they can get impressive value for money in the transfer market. The spirit in the camp is also suggestive of a supportive environment devoid of egos. Much as I’d like the club to meet any future wage demands of our best players, I’d rather squad unity was prioritised and if this means players need to be sold then that’s a price worth paying, as long as someone’s paying a hefty price.

Previously the idea of selling our best players could be criticised as the club lacking ambition but there’s no escaping the fact that for the current ownership team that, in and of itself, is the ambition. And a pretty lofty one it is too. There’s no shame in being a selling club. Pretty much every club beyond, and even some within, the European elite can be counted as one. Aspiring to be one of the better ones, like a Borussia Dortmund or Atlético Madrid, is ambitious enough for me.

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