The analysis was cutting, the numbers were stark, and the conclusion was damning as FourFourTwo, presumably after an highly scientific study period, anointed Didier Ndong as the worst record signing in Premier League history.
Described somewhat ambitiously as ‘combative’, the Gabon international was nonetheless skewered for his miserably unproductive period at the Stadium of Light and the sheer amount of money he ultimately cost us. He was also duly criticised for his ability to ‘rile up a fan base that had already been through the mill’.
Without reading through an exhaustive list of alternatives, it’s difficult to argue with their analysis, even if being reminded of his utterly wasted spell on Wearside isn’t particularly easy.
In another time, such a renowned publication training their spotlight on Sunderland might’ve heaped further humiliation on us, but now that we’re on a new path, perhaps it’s possible to look back on Ndong’s time in red and white with a little less unease.
We all know the story. It’s been pored over, analysed, pulled apart and pieced back together as we tried to make sense of what happened between 2016 and 2018, and two seasons of unprecedented misery.
The ‘Sam Allardyce Dance’ that became the abiding image of our 2015/2016 survival. The endless pining for Yann M’Vila. Roy Hodgson making a mess of Euro 2016. The departure of Allardyce and the arrival of David Moyes, and the subsequent slide into oblivion that began to gather speed at an alarming rate once the dust had settled.
If Moyes’ eternally-mocked vision of ‘Britishness in midfield’, not to mention his attempts to turn the Stadium of Light into a retirement home for his former Everton players, was the perfect accompaniment to some truly dismal transfer business and equally horrific football, the centrepiece of the whole drama was surely Ndong.
Ability-wise, he might not have been the worst footballer we’ve ever signed, but it’s an almost unarguable fact that he retains a unique status as one of the worst additions- in terms of influence, problems created and the fallout from his eventual departure- in our history.
Perhaps the starkest thing about the whole wretched saga is that it remains a fairly recent part of our history.
2016 isn’t exactly a lifetime ago (although in many respects, it feels like it) and the scars of that era, although healing, haven’t entirely disappeared and maybe they never will.
Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that the 2023 incarnation of Sunderland AFC is a world away from the days of financial wastage, managerial turnover and sheer desperation that marked the dying days of the Ellis Short era.
The collapse from top flight safety to League One purgatory took less than two years to materialise and almost half a decade to recover from, during which time our entire recruitment process has been overhauled more dramatically than at any time in our recent history.
Nowadays, a player with such a deficit between talent and attitude as Ndong wouldn’t get within twenty miles of the Stadium of Light- except, perhaps, as a visiting player.
This would also apply to Jack Rodwell, whose undoubted pedigree was undermined by an attitude that would make even the most workshy modern-day footballer look like a dedicated pro by comparison.
Perhaps it was simply a byproduct of a club in decline that we found ourselves being drawn to such players. Footballers and agents could sense our desperation and it made for a toxic situation where money was being wasted for precisely zero return. It was a cycle that needed to be broken, and it eventually was, albeit slowly and often painfully.
Nowadays, there’s so much more going on than merely spending money. It’s now about ensuring that the right personalities are brought to the club and that the collective ethos that’s been developed in recent times is not destabilised.
Whether it’s a young prodigy like Jobe Bellingham or a well-travelled veteran like Bradley Dack, our recruitment process is now based around the qualities potential arrivals are blessed with as individuals, as well as their ability as footballers.
Simply put, you won’t be signed by Sunderland if you’re not willing to dedicate yourself to constant improvement, put the team’s needs above your own personal goals, and leave the pitch at the end of the game having given everything- win, lose, or draw.
Every player in our first team squad fits this mould, from Jack Clarke’s ever-improving defensive awareness to Luke O’Nien’s selflessness and Bellingham’s confident yet humble demeanour, this squad is a world away from the ‘Class of 2016’ and the wasters who comprised it.
Unlike the egotistical Moyes, who genuinely seemed to believe that Sunderland was beneath him and that his presence at the Stadium of Light was some form of divine intervention, Tony Mowbray has thrown himself into the job with humour, humility, and exceptional man management.
He’s helped to create a mentality where hard work is rewarded and mistakes aren’t terminal. That’s to his immense credit, and you can see it reflected in the players every time they take to the field.
Whereas Moyes preferred to fill the corridors and concourses with doom and gloom, Mowbray has spoken about instilling ‘values’ in his players, and the results have spoken for themselves.
If Ndong was the worst record signing in our history, perhaps we’ll look back in a decade and be able to hail the likes of Jobe, Jack Clarke and Dan Ballard as being among the greatest bargains we’ve ever recruited, and as players who helped the club to take great strides back to where we’d all like it to be.
That would be the sweetest feeling of all after the turmoil of the mid-2010s, and it would be proof that from the smouldering ashes of a football club, something new, exciting and genuinely progressive was constructed.