PHIL Bardsley is looking forward to the new signings he hopes can transform Sunderland into European contenders.
And owner Ellis Short has indicated he will give manager Martin O’Neill the necessary backing, with an emphasis on quality over quantity in their transfer dealings this summer. The Black Cats have only made one close-season signing so far – defender Carlos Cuellar on a free transfer – but full-back Bardsley is confident that, by the time the transfer window closes on August 31, they will have a squad to improve on last season.
Sunderland finished 13th in the Premier League then after a topsy-turvy campaign. Having recovered from a dreadful start under Steve Bruce, for a while they had an outside chance of qualifying for Europe for the first time since 1973, only for their form to disintegrate during the run-in.
“Carlos Cuellar has come in and bolstered the squad so it is great news for us and hopefully there are a few more faces on the way to help us head in the direction we want to go in this season,” said Bardsley as Sunderland’s players – minus six internationals – returned for pre-season training yesterday.
When asked what the Wearsiders’ targets for the season were, he added: “Obviously finishing in the top 10 and pushing for Europe, with the quality of players we have got in the squad and if we make additions, that should be our aim.
“It is up to the players now to knuckle down in pre-season, work as hard as we can and be fresh for the start.”
Sunderland finished 10th under Bruce in 2010-11 but, rather than build on it, they were in the relegation zone when O’Neill’s first match in charge kicked off in December.
Versatile defender Cuellar was a free agent after being released by Aston Villa at the end of last season.
O’Neill spent no money in January, his only signings being loanees who have since been sent back. But Short has great faith in the Ulsterman and is ready to back him with cash in this transfer window.
A target man is a priority and O’Neill is likely to look for a left-back even if Kieran Richardson does not leave, as expected.
Midfield reinforcements cannot be ruled out either, and it will not have escaped O’Neill’s attention that Blackburn Rovers’ Steven N’Zonzi has been left out of his club’s pre-season training camp in Austria.
Rovers appear resigned to allowing the 23-year-old Frenchman to leave for around £5m.
Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Villa have also been linked, but Sunderland would appear to have more chance of landing the combative midfielder than former club-mate David “Junior” Hoilett, who is a much-in-demand free agent.
John O’Shea, James McClean, Keiren Westwood, Sebastian Larsson, Stéphane Sessègnon and Ahmed Elmohamady were all missing from the Academy of Light yesterday. All were involved in international football over the summer, either in Africa or at Euro 2012.
“I think it is very important players get a break between what are very demanding seasons and it was always my intention to allow those involved in international games a little more time away,” explained O’Neill. “They go straight from the end of our domestic season into a situation where almost immediately they are gearing up for international competitions and games and then not long after that we’d have been asking them to return to pre-season.
“It seems more sensible to give them a little more time away to rest up, recharge the batteries and get rid of any strains or knocks they might have picked up.
“On top of that, we don’t have to worry too much about their fitness levels because they have been involved in games over the close season of a very high standard and they’ve maintained their fitness levels for those matches.”