The transfer market, as we all know, is fraught with risk. From the perspective of your average fan, blissfully unaccountable to fiscal prudence, it’s tempting to assume that you get what you pay for: spend big to guarantee success.
Our Premier League days may seem like a distant memory, yet the kick of hefty transfer fees can’t be so easily dispelled from our bloodstream despite the memory of relatively recent, and seemingly fatal, episodes of overindulgence.
In 2016, more informed and sceptical minds than mine may have immediately questioned the outlay on the likes of Papy Djilobodji and Didier N’Dong, but despite knowing nothing of their pedigree and placing misplaced faith in the talent-spotting skills of David Moyes and his staff, I assumed at the time that the transfer fees attested to the players’ quality.
Less forgivably, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in seeing the capture of Will Grigg’s signature as a credit to our perseverance in getting the deal done, despite nagging misgivings over having clearly paid far more than the going rate for him.
Such reservations are all too readily put aside in the perverse retail therapy of the transfer market with its twisted logic that if a player is valued at £4 million, the signing must represent a League One level coup of sorts.
Essentially, if war is politics by other means, then transfer business is a game of football by other means.
Outspending rivals or beating them to the signing of a particular player, often characterised as ‘winning the race’ in the media’s reporting of a club’s failure to drive a hard enough bargain, takes on a performative role. It simulates, in the mind of supporters, a comfortable victory or a last-minute winner on matchday.
Conversely, a steadfast refusal to meet the inflated valuation of the selling club or an agent’s excessive wage demands for their client is invariably portrayed as unambitious and a failure rather than a determination not to allow our club to be held to ransom.
This is by no means a trait associated solely with Sunderland fans, and it’s a natural by-product of the football brand which strives to keep its customers, via its cheerleader beneficiaries in the media, in a constant state of fever pitch even when no football is being played.
Sound finances and business acumen hardly set the pulse racing, but the path to success on the pitch is littered with the corpses of those who have fallen short in this area. As we begin our own attempt at an ascent up the football pyramid, the dangers of financial mismanagement are evident as we pass those who’ve fallen along the way- the likes of Derby County and conceivably, Reading and Birmingham City.
In the current landscape, a prudent transfer strategy is essential to a club’s survival, yet credit is rarely given by fans for a negotiating stance that sidesteps the sort of trap that we fell headfirst into when signing Grigg.
Similarly, no one remembers the ‘bullet successfully dodged’, yet everyone wistfully recalls ‘the ones that got away’, which feature on an ever-expanding list that includes the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ivan Rakitic, Virgil van Dijk and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
With that in mind, I’m hopeful that we’re now entering a sort of paradigm shift in our perception of transfer policy.
Sunderland fans have become well acquainted with the concept of ‘buyer’s remorse’ over the last decade or so, but the final nail in the coffin in the flawed concept of a no-brainer transfer deal was hopefully Jermain Defoe’s ‘last dance’, which turned out to be eerily prophetic- if the dance in question was the final act of Swan Lake.
Fundamentally, risk can never be eliminated from a transfer deal.
The player who is ‘guaranteed’ to solidify our defence, dictate the midfield or score for fun is either completely unattainable or a figment of our collective imagination. There are simply far too many variables, from the player’s adaptability to a different system and set of teammates, to their attitude and potential acclimatisation to their new surroundings.
In this context, praise ought to be readily given for the way in which the club have exploited the loan market in recent years.
Elliot Embleton’s development owes a great deal to his spell at Blackpool, and Jack Diamond has emerged a lot less uncut from his experiences at Harrogate. However, the way in which Sunderland have taken advantage of incoming loan deals represents the biggest shift from our previous strategy.
Besides Fabio Borini, there have been precious few occasions on which the club have converted successful loan deals into permanent transfers.
Although the Borini deal ultimately failed to bear fruit, the logic behind the deal was unquestionable, as it would have been if the likes of Marcos Alonso, Yann M’Vila and many others were signed permanently after a successful loan period.
As mentioned above, risk can’t be fully eliminated, but the sheer fact of the loaned player’s proven ability, attitude and acclimatisation helps to significantly minimise it.
Cheaper, untried alternatives are always likely to be available in such cases and it’s always a bit galling to be paying more for a player than you would have paid before the successful loan. However, that’s the reciprocal benefit of the loan market: the selling club finds a buyer that’s willing to pay more than they ordinarily would, and the buying club has more confidence in the player they’re getting.
Time will tell whether the club made the right decision in converting Patrick Roberts’ and Jack Clarke’s loans into permanent deals. If they’re eventually sold on for a substantial fee, questions may be asked about the wisdom of agreeing to sell-on clauses that limit the boost to our transfer kitty.
Nonetheless, testing the water with initial loan deals before taking the plunge on relatively young players with obvious but untapped potential represents a much more thorough degree of due diligence in our transfer strategy. Furthermore, the success of such loan deals for the player and the selling club make us an attractive prospect for future forays into this underrated area of the transfer minefield.