It is a big summer for Sunderland and Martin O’Neill as they look to re-focus on their top-seven mission. Chief sports writer Mark Douglas looks at the Black Cats’ pre-season priorities.
SO, which Sunderland will we see next season? Will it be the high-octane, adrenaline-fuelled Black Cats that proved such a thorn in the side of Premier League champions Manchester City – or will it be the pale-faced tribute act that eked out the campaign with some of the hallmarks of a late-season Steve Bruce collapse?
Providing an emphatic answer to that question is Martin O’Neill’s biggest challenge when he welcomes his players back for the start of pre-season next week.
For, while he helped to oversee some of the greatest days of Sunderland’s recent history in those breathless first months, the way it ended was all-too-forgettable.
O’Neill’s Black Cats ended without a win in their final nine matches, and scored only six in that depressing streak. The squad – as if he needed reminding – requires substantial surgery.
So far, the club are biding their time in the hunt for recruits. Carlos Cuellar provides experienced back-up for a squad that now looks defender-heavy, but it is up front and in key areas in midfield where O’Neill must strengthen and provide the balance that was sorely missing last season.
We can expect a more consistent and measured approach in the transfer market than his predecessor. One of the things that Ellis Short abhors about English football is the so-called “deals culture” – a philosophy that was very much Bruce’s modus operandi.
While Bruce saw some of his signings as such good value for money that Sunderland couldn’t afford not to do the deal, Short saw a squad that was over-loaded in certain areas.
In O’Neill he feels he has a more methodical man in charge. He is also aided by the manager’s desire to banish the reputation that he picked up at Aston Villa as a chequebook manager who supposedly wasted Randy Lerner’s money in the second city. That is patently absurd –- look at the money Villa picked up for Ashley Young and Stewart Downing and decide for yourself whether O’Neill was canny – but the Sunderland boss knows that there is little appetite for another overhaul.
Instead the trick is to add four or five players of a higher calibre while trying to squeeze the most out of the players that remain. Sunderland want Junior Hoilett, have watched Sporting Lisbon man Ricky van Wolfswinkel and seem keen on striking a loan deal for Manchester City’’s Swedish international John Guidetti.
Links to that trio inspire confidence that the Black Cats intend to move forward – and it is pleasing to know that speculation surrounding Keith Andrews, Nigel Reo-Coker and Grant Holt was incorrect.
No offence to the players involved, but Sunderland need better.
From the existing squad, there are issues to be resolved. Stéphane Sessègnon delivered reassurances to the Black Cats manager about his future before the season ended, but he has had a summer of agents and various hangers on making noises to him about interest from Arsenal and Manchester City, who are regularly linked with him in the influential L’Équipe sports newspaper in France.
Sessègnon’s wife supposedly found it tough to settle in the North East but there are degrees of homesickness, and the biggest challenge is to convince the player that his ambition can be satisfied on Wearside.
The other rumour that continues to rumble is that Sessègnon is “not an O’Neill player”. The point is made that the manager has always played with two wingers and two physical strikers, but that does not credit the Sunderland boss and his backroom staff with the tactical flexibility he exhibited last season.
Questions remain over the future of others. Kieran Richardson has a year left on his deal and looks bound for Everton, which leaves a hole in the squad. And what of Connor Wickham, who failed to justify the over-inflated price tag put on his head last season? He did not get much first-team football under O’Neill but there is a latent talent there waiting to be unleashed. Injury-free and with the pressure off, the Sunderland boss may just have a player on his hands.
Overall, O’Neill is trying to set his team up to challenge for seventh place – with a possible tilt at one of the knockout competitions. Short is quite honest and realistic about the obstacles in the Sunderland manager’s path, but there is a need for O’Neill to once again re-energise the club.
The first three months were a neat summary of what O’Neill expects from his teams. He wants them to work hard, attack and get supporters off their feet but so far this summer, excitement has been thin on the ground.
Perhaps that is not such a bad thing. Last year Bruce began pre-season in rude health with a sprinkling of signings that whetted the appetite – but Sunderland ended without the creative midfielder and goalscorer they required.
It was an oversight that ultimately cost him his job. O’Neill, more methodical, moving with less fuss than previous Sunderland managers, knows that failing to address the problem will cause him serious headaches too.