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Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final

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Opinion: Is signing a new striker Sunderland’s biggest current transfer priority?

Malc Dugdale is feeling a little nervy about the ongoing striker silence. Is this cause for the worry beads to really come out, or is more patience needed?

Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Most fans thought we were doing okay in the market. Is that not the case?

Are we in July already? Where did June go? Thankfully, although it feels like five minutes since we were top of the league at Christmas with Lee Johnson at the helm (how things have changed since then, eh!), the transfer window still has a long way to go.

To date, we have done some very good business to build what we need for 2022/23. The addition of Ballard, and retaining – or re-signing Gooch, Roberts and Wright – are all huge positives.

However, I felt compelled to put pen to paper – or should that be fingers to keyboard – about the lack of attacking options being discussed in the window to date.

For me, this is beginning to be the cause of some minor rumblings of discontent.

I expected us to build our squad steadily to improve the probability that we can not only stay in the Championship, but build towards the top half, either this season or in upcoming campaigns in the near future. We are doing that, but the way this is shaping up in all areas bar up front stands out like a sore thumb.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

So what factors are causing the twitchiness?

My main concern is up front – and around the probability of our success if things don’t change very soon.

The dearth of progress regarding attacking options has been compounded by the scarcity of any updates regarding Ross Stewart’s future, too.

Even if Sunderland were to simply confirm that Ross Stewart’s many suitors are fended off for the summer and January 2023 say with a one to two year extension, I would take some solace – but as we stand, next June he will be a free agent.

The longer that goes on, the greater the likelihood of the club cashing in on him – or risk losing him in January for a reduced fee. Or worse, on a free next summer.

Yes, he was late back due to warming the bench for Scotland as they struggled to make it to major comps to come, but after the Maja farce under Madrox, nothing in the world of Sunderland transfers would shock me.

We have to hope that things will be different with KLD at the helm, and that Stewart will be with us for some time to come.

We all know about what happens when we build up our hopes, though.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Given rubbish situations like how Maja left, I am sure it isn’t only my worry beads that are a little rattled, whether justifiably so or not.

Surely there must be something imminent that Sunderland are about to announce that can ease fans’ concerns about our attacking line being ready for 2022-23?

Am I overreacting in thinking we have cause for worry?

Okay, agreed we don’t want another Maja. What was the probability point?

After that great weekend at Wembley after our five or six seasons of downward trajectory and misery, we finally got back up one level in May. While that warm Wembley feeling is still there from that weekend (and I am sure those memories won’t change a great deal for some time), I cannot shake off the fact that we came fifth in League One last season.

Based on that being our capability after 46 League One games, surely we have more to do to be ready for 2022-23 than (for instance) others that went up in the automatics?

The main issue I think I have with balancing my stress levels comes from my technical and scientific mind, and the elements of probability involved.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

We ascended back to the Championship through hard work and determination, and through the lottery that is the playoffs.

While the transfer business we have been doing looks good, with the spine of the team forming well and with the likes of Ballard coming to join us, we haven’t really improved the squad much from the team who finished one spot inside the top six.

The lads did so well under Alex Neil for that last 15 or so games and carried that on against Sheffield Wednesday and Wycombe Wanderers, but I am really on the fence as to whether that is enough to carry on later this summer without significant building.

What are our chances of success if the club’s working on the basis that the core of a team that finished fifth in League One, with a couple of additions, will be good enough to compete in the Championship?

Do we really think that is the plan, though?

I am hoping against hope that we do not need to prepare ourselves for the fact we will end up relying on speculative theories rather than plain old investment and squad building.

Theories such as those that may believe that Alex Neil and the core of last season are good enough to not only win the League One playoffs, but also to consolidate in the second tier.

While this may carry some validity (especially in terms of our coach’s ability at this level), this is not the position I want to be at the core of our strategy when the window closes in August.

Looking for balance in this thinking, with the way the recruitment works way more confidentially these days at Sunderland a small part of me is telling me not to chew my nails too often, along the grounds of “no news is good news”.

But there is a real risk that the small devil on my pessimistic shoulder is worth listening to, at least from some perspectives.

One of those perspectives is the depth, or lack of it, that remains in the attacking area of the squad.

While Ross Stewart has been nothing short of epic since he joined us in January of 2021, he is only one man, and like any other, he is a man who can get injured at any time. He played 53 games last season across league, cups and play-off games, racking up more than 4500 playing minutes.

He arrived at Sunderland with an injury, as we all remember, and he took time to get over that before he started his tenure in the number 14 shirt, soon seeming to be a virtual ever-present in the starting 11.

In my view, we cannot realistically expect Stewart to be as lucky as he was last term with injuries. In parallel to that, the probability that he will both stay fit and score the same number of goals as he did in the next tier down drives even longer odds at all the bookies we have debated so much of late.

What other factors do we think may build on this probability-based concern?

Naturally, Stewart will be up against better defenders next season. Those small increases in defensive ability add up to it being harder to score the higher we climb.

Stewart isn’t on his own with injury risks either, which is where my probability radar beeps in again.

Broadhead was fantastic last season, but his success was shrouded by injuries all across his loan period. He tended to do very well when fit and was unplayable in our old league at times, and his success was especially evident when Stweart wasn’t playing.

Unfortunately, Everton have said they want to see him in action during pre-season before making a call on whether Broadhead can play a part for them in the Premier League.

Arsenal v Everton - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

That delay is less of an issue if we do sign Broadhead, as he knows the gaffer and the team, and can click into the old ways quite fast.

If we don’t succeed in signing him, however, we will have to bring in others later in the window who may not click as quickly as Broadhead would.

And, even if we do secure the signature of our former loanee in the next week or two, surely we want more depth to cater for him and our Stewart taking knocks?

The probability of Broadhead and Stewart staying fit combined with the chance of them both doing well in the next level up is something is at the core of my concerns.

We just don’t know if they will both be there, nor how often they will play, or how they will fare.

We need to up the odds to be more in our favour by bringing in attacking players who are more proven in terms of both fitness, resilience to play a lot of games, and in succeeding at the new level we have earned a spot in.

But we had a huge squad for League One. Surely we have a base to fall back on?

If we don’t beat the odds in terms of players staying fit and doing well after a step up, we could do okay across several areas of the team – but the reality is we do not have a single striker option right now other than Ross Stewart.

This isn’t a great place to be with around seven weeks of the transfer window to run.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final
Will Broadhead return?
Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

While there is a free agent market to tap into – potentially enabling us to offer better wages to attract players – this too has risks, particularly as the weeks tick on.

It makes good business sense to sign free agents – we saw that with the addition of Alex Pritchard last season – and if we are to sign a free agent I am fine with that.

But we need to do that sooner rather than later. We really need to have free-agent signings on our books as early in the pre-season as we can.

Free agents are a good avenue to research, and you can unearth some real gems who can fit with your side where they may not have necessarily done that with other teams and formations – again, as we saw with Pritchard.

The trade-off is that no matter how they turn out over time, they will likely need a few weeks to get up to speed due to a lack of match fitness. Of course, as with any new signing, they will need time to build an understanding with their new squad.

If we want new blood to be adding to our striking options with anything other than a cameo off the bench in August, we need to see pictures of them holding a scarf pretty soon.

So, is anything countering this pessimism?

Clearly we have a few probability-based factors that are worrying me, but there is one thing slightly calming my natural Sunderland-related alarm bells – and that is our recruitment over the last couple of transfer windows.

January was one of the most successful windows we have had in some time [ed: with a huge Jermain Defoe-shaped exception]. Yes, we had concerns with the loss of Flanagan without backup, but the gains outweighed the losses for me, and by some margin.

New Sunderland Manager Press Conference Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

If Kristjaan Speakman and his recruitment team can do as well as they did last January while the club was in turmoil, especially given they now have a head coach who has earned respect and time and who is backed by a much clearer ownership structure, surely we should do okay?

With our sporting director, coach and wider team working together with all the data inputs from the wider tools and technology we have to hand, our hiring can – and maybe should – hit another level again compared to last winter. It needs to perform at the next level though, as with the friendlies already starting, time is ticking.

And just like June, the next seven weeks will pass so fast.

So, do we have cause for genuine concern, or am I just a naturally pessimistic Mackem?

Only time will tell as to whether my worry beads and concerns over the probability of success with mainly League One players is valid, but all we can do is hope… both hope that sticking mainly with what we had isn’t the plan, and hope if it is, it works out as well as most things have that Alex Neil has led.

It is over to Sunlun and Speakman, and only time will tell the tale.

Let’s have a few more scarf pics, and let’s suround Ross Stewartwith attacking talent to ensure our first season back in level two is a success.

Based on Ballard and others, the less we know the better the signing may be, but I could do with something to ease my nerves, so any time you are ready, eh…

Sunderland Unveil New Signing Daniel Ballard Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

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