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Has the present transfer system historically worked for Sunderland?

Were things better in the days before transfer windows and Financial Fair Play for clubs like Sunderland?

Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

We’re now a fortnight on from the close of the transfer window, and we have all had time to take stock of the whirlwind of business concluded by Sunderland in the final days.

With the end of the window coming right before the international break we have not yet had the opportunity to take a look at any of the signings we brought in during the final week - yet despite of this, most fans are pretty happy with our activity over the summer and with our latest acquisitions.

It’s a lot easier to convince everyone it was a good week on the back of a 5-0 win!

As with the last days of many previous transfer windows with Sunderland, the activity was frantic but largely successful - which our present owners are building a reputation for - and in complete contrast to most of the regimes of the past ten years or so.

Even though we have apparently come out of the events of the last week of August reasonably well, nobody can deny it was a nail-biting experience for everyone concerned, fans, players, coaches and directors. But then isn’t that part of it? It generates interest and excitement in abundance and in a way deflects attention away from the actual football.

Sunderland v Southampton FC - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Robert Smith/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The media - and Sky in particular - launch into overdrive in their coverage of the countdown to the close of the transfer window. Through mega-hype, the close of the transfer windows in August and January have become one of the major events in the football calendar. Agents put it above Christmas Day and their mother's birthday.

It is their Christmas, and it comes twice a year.

With the pressure on clubs to get deals over the line before the window closes, transfer fees are driven up when one of the purposes of the window is meant to be to keep control of spending. At Sunderland probably the most infamous and completely documented event was when Stewart Donald completely blew all of the family silver on Will Grigg in the last hours of the January transfer window in 2019.

Three or four million pounds paid for Grigg depending on which figure you believe - just one or two million of that money would have built a team to get out of League One much earlier than we did, but it was an absolutely classic case of the panic that sets in at boardroom level and drives up fees to an astronomical level for players who are just not worth the figures paid.

Sunderland v AFC Wimbledon - Sky Bet League One Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

In 2002 Sunderland’s biggest purchase was around £7,000,000 for Claudio Reyna. By the time of our last year in the Premier League in 2016 we paid a king’s ransom for Didier Ndong. On a national level, Premier League clubs spent a net total of under £200m in 2002 to around £2.8 billion for the last year.

The close of the transfer window is the shutoff point for managers and coaches up and down the football pyramid. Once it closes - that is it, they are stuck with the squad they have for the next few months until the next window opens, with the exception in some circumstances of bringing in a goalkeeper if forced by injury.

Indifferent form? In relegation trouble? Squad decimated by injuries? Forget it - you have to go with what you have. This has pushed managers alike to load up with bigger squads to cope with a long season, which is at odds with the very idea that transfer windows were brought in for.

UEFA imposed the idea of transfer windows across continental football in 2002 because they said - for one thing - it would encourage clubs to promote youth players into the first team when injuries struck. Instead, all it has done is encourage clubs to carry bigger squads and the big clubs hoard even more of the best players.

Now, with it seems an entire team allowed to sit on the substitutes bench this has been encouraged even more so that a top coach like Pep Guardiola can watch his team of Manchester City superstars struggle on the pitch against say - Bournemouth - and turn to look at another team of superstars sat behind him to come on and shake things up. Bournemouth manager Adoni Iraola can't field two teams of staggering talent like that.

Anyone under the age of 30 might ask if there has ever been any other way.

Well... yeah. There never used to be transfer windows and clubs were free to trade, sell or bring in players right up until the end of March. It was only in 2003 that the transfer window system was introduced. Before then if a club was struggling near the bottom of the table they could and would easily bring in a player or two to help them turn things around in plenty of time to spare - say October or November - or an extra player to help with a push for the top.

In Sunderland’s case historically there are many instances where we have brought in a player at a crucial time who has helped turn things around or push the team onwards, but some to note before the strict January-only rule was introduced in 2002 are:

  • Stan Cummins signed in November 1979 and helped push Sunderland from 12th place to promotion
  • Frank Worthington signed in December 1982 and helped inspire a run that took the team clear of the relegation places
  • Marco Gabbiadini signed in late September 1987 with his goals propelling a stuttering Sunderland from the old Division 3 that season
  • Tony Norman signed in December 1988 to help shore up a leaky defence as we consolidated in Division 2
  • Allan Johnston signed in March 1997 with Chris Waddle to try and save a slide to relegation
  • Nicky Summerbee signed in November 1997 and helped form a firm promotion push

There’s no chance of that happening now. If a side is in trouble in October or could do with extra hands to push on at the top they are stuck with what they have for the next few months. And by the time January comes around it can be very much too late for a struggling team and game over by that point - David Moyes finding that point proven to him in 2017 when he tried to desperately rejig his squad.

Sunderland v Portsmouth - Sky Bet League One Play-Off: First Leg Photo bt Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

What of the two Sunderland squads that were relegated with record low points in 2003 and 2006, could have a couple of players introduced in October and November have helped turn our form around and stave off the disaster that loomed?

Squads were smaller, because there wasn’t a need to prepare in August for any possible fate that might happen that season and the smaller clubs held onto a lot more of their top players than happens now. If anything, the smaller squads also encouraged managers to promote academy or youth players as they were called then much more quickly than happens now when injuries in the first team occurred.

It was interesting to hear pundit Gary Neville’s take on another rule brought in to supposedly control spending - Financial Fair Play. In his opinion, it was brought by the big clubs to stop the small clubs competing against them financially, so that they could never spend their way to equality on the pitch.

Looking at the result of the football transfer window since it was introduced - forcing up transfer fees, bigger squads that benefit the big clubs, the big clubs hoarding the best players - it makes older fans look at it and think... is it just one of those things where we have gone backwards?


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