SUNDERLAND are monitoring the availability of Aston Villa defender Carlos Cuellar, who will be out of contract at the end of the season.
Martin O’Neill is prepared to make changes in the summer to refresh a Black Cats squad that requires strengthening but, as chief executive Margaret Byrne pointed out this week, they must be “creative” in the market to maintain their positive progress off the pitch.
The Journal understands that process will include the Wearsiders casting around for high-profile free agents in the close season – with Cuellar a priority defensive option if he opts to leave Villa.
At the moment his representatives have only held preliminary conversations on a new deal but they are aware how highly O’Neill rates a player he signed for £7.8million from Rangers.
The Sunderland chief is looking for reinforcements in every area of the pitch, with a centre-back and a centre-forward particular priorities. The absence of a transfer fee would make Cuellar a compelling option, although the days of huge salaries at the Stadium of Light are behind Sunderland.
O’Neill has major decisions to make on the futures of several key men but will look to refresh his squad in every area if he is given board backing in the summer.
Cuellar, along with goalkeeper Brad Guzan and veteran striker Emile Heskey, must wait until the end of the season before learning whether they have been given a new deal.
“The gaffer’s said he would rather put all these talks back until the season ends,” said Villa’s assistant boss Peter Grant yesterday.
“Alex has always been one of these guys who prefers to do his business at the end of the season. He knows the most important thing is Aston Villa Football Club winning games.
“His thinking is ‘I’d rather leave it as much as I possibly can’ and I think the players we’re working with understand that now.” Although he needs reinforcements in key areas, O’Neill is unlikely to turn the loans of Sotirios Kyrgiakos or Wayne Bridge into permanent transfers.
Both players have been thrust into action due to injuries, but both would be expensive options in the summer.
Although happy to have those options, Kyrgiakos has looked rusty in his three games, while Bridge is contracted until 2013 at Manchester City.
O’Neill said: “I am very pleased that we took them on board and just delighted to have them within the squad because they have made a contribution.
“I am just very pleased. If we hadn’t taken them on, I would have been very concerned. I am not so sure we would have been able to cope.”
Meanwhile, former Black Cats chairman Sir Bob Murray has hailed O’Neill for building on his training ground legacy.
Murray was responsible for building the Stadium of Light and the club’s excellent training facilities and the club’s Life President revealed that he had spoken to O’Neill since he took over.
“Martin’s been very kind and complimentary and appreciative in what he’s said, but the most important thing is he’s putting it to good use,” he said. “I enjoy the games much more now I'm not chairman and I’m really delighted (current owner and chairman) Ellis (Short) has taken my legacy and got Martin O’Neill to use it. I think that’s a great move, I’m delighted with that.
“I remember when the lads used to go to Roker Park, get changed, jump in their own cars, go down to Cleadon, come back dirty and go back to Roker in their own cars. It wasn’t that long ago!
“I bought the Charlie Hurley Centre for the club from Bartrams, the shipbuilders, when they went under. That was their sports centre. I bought that for the club and the council let us play football on it.”