Before Monday night, the most controversial thing Jack Colback had ever done was mistakenly reveal the door code at Sunderland’s Academy of Light during the Black Cats’ League Cup final Press conference.
We’d passed an adequate half hour in his company before then, with Colback applying a resolutely straight bat to the full toss questions fired his way. His interviews tended to be like his football: pleasing enough but generally not giving much away.
He is an unlikely lightning conductor for Tyne-Wear tensions, then and an odd kind of player too: one of the few whose departure doesn’t necessarily weaken Sunderland but improves Newcastle.
That probably sounds impossible but the Black Cats can prosper without the player and Newcastle will benefit from having another experienced Premier League player who doesn’t belong to the growing band of overseas stars at St James’ Park. When Sunderland needed him he didn’t go missing, which is a bonus for Newcastle, but the fact the Black Cats didn’t always call on him surely means there is life after Colback at the Stadium of Light.
The bigger intrigue was in Sunderland’s reaction, which was surprisingly – and uncharacteristically – bitter.
To plaster their Twitter feed with pictures of the player celebrating against Newcastle looked a bit petty, in the same way that Alan Pardew’s response after last season’s 3-0 defeat at St James’ Park was wretched.
“I would rather play and give it a good go in the quarter-final of the Europa League, and they can only dream of that,” he’d said back then. Nobody was fooled, just as Sunderland’s salty statement in the wake of Colback’s departure looked distinctly like a mealy-mouthed attempt to shift the blame.
They claimed they met Colback’s every demand but that’s a bit disingenuous. Last summer a risible contract offer was delivered to the midfielder which was hardly in keeping with Paolo Di Canio’s claim that the flame-haired midfielder would be one of his ‘lions’ last season.
Perhaps they did try their best after that, but their negotiations were all over the place at times. Having gone from dishing out crazy contracts to the likes of Jozy Altidore and Emanuele Giaccherini they then messed up with their homegrown midfielder.
The club can train their ire on Colback all they like but the fact remains: they wanted to keep him, Seb Larsson (pictured below) and Phil Bardsley at the club and only ended up retaining one. That despite the fact Bardsley and his representative had made it clear he wanted to stay from the point at which he turned down a very generous offer from Fulham in January. Something went awry somewhere along the line and blaming Colback for desertion is an attempt to shift the focus from the real problem here: Ellis Short handed the keys to the wrong people last summer and the fall-out has only just subsided.
It is a message that Short, to his credit, seems to have heeded by tying Gustavo Poyet down to a new contract in the last month. But the emotionally driven statement that followed Colback’s departure should be the last hair-trigger response from the owner and his people for a while: Sunderland need a period of consolidation and gradual improvement, not the shock therapy that the impatient Short has too often resorted too.
What of Newcastle’s role in this? Colback is a decent addition, and someone they have had knowledge of since his days on loan at Ipswich. They have signed him because of his left foot, which adds balance to a squad that proved a bit limited at times last season.
That six-year contract is a heck of a commitment though, and Colback’s arrival changes the context of their summer reshuffle. Jonjo Shelvey – Alan Pardew’s big summer pick – can probably discount a move to Newcastle now that the Magpies already have midfield cover. Ditto Andros Townsend, another Pardew fancy. It looks very much like midfield, with the exception of a playmaker, is now sorted for next season.
The signings of Colback and Ayoze Perez have at least proved Lee Charnley can clinch a deal when he needs to, although on the really big ones – Remy Cabella, Bafetimbi Gomis and Clement Grenier spring to mind – he is yet to make the breakthrough Newcastle require.
I wouldn’t envy anyone manoeuvring through the viper’s pit of agents and club presidents that constitute the foreign transfer market but Newcastle have lost the initiative so far this summer. Louis Nicollin (Montpellier’s avuncular president) mocks from the sidelines as United try to broker a deal for Cabella and the talk around Gomis has allowed others to set the agenda. All the while, Newcastle are no closer to the big deal they really need for the playmaker who can restore faith in United ahead of the new campaign.
None of this is Colback’s fault, of course. He has shown bravery to make the move but he will have to do more than talk dreamily of playing for his childhood club if he is going to convince us that he can make the next step.
The final word goes to Luke Ball, son of Sunderland Academy director Luke. “What I will say is, Jack Colback will have to come out of his safety shell. Could see an entirely different player next year,” he wrote.
It was a level-headed analysis of a 7/10 player caught up in an extraordinary firestorm. You can’t help but think Colback himself would have approved.