THIS was an important summer in the history of Sunderland Football Club – arguably the most important close season of the modern era.
Signings were required to strengthen the squad but, in reality, something bigger was needed to convince Wearside that the momentum generated in the early days of the Ellis Short era was not slowing to a stall.
As the club’s key power-brokers drew up their transfer hit-list in the dying days of last season, there was a recognition that they sorely needed to recruit a ‘game-changer’ during the summer months. The Black Cats ended last season nestled in midtable, but that is a position that can become too comfortable and the “wow” factor was at the top of the red-and-white menu. It says it all that they managed to achieve that feat with a week to go – a situation that left them immune to yesterday’s frantically over-hyped deadline day histrionics. With Adam Johnson in tow, Black Cats could allow themselves a chuckle at the sight of a roll-necked Nicklas Bendtner signing for Serie A giants Juventus.
Sunderland know that desperation only too well, but there was nothing frantic or rushed about the business done by the Stadium of Light club in the close season.
Johnson was the big name, but throughout the squad they look stronger; Louis Saha and Steven Fletcher adding the goal threat that was sorely missing as last season petered to its unsatisfactory conclusion.
No wonder Martin O’Neill – who leads his side into a testing clash with Swansea this afternoon – has declared this transfer window to be a success. He knows he is not alone in reaching that conclusion.
“I sense the uplift in the city,” he said.
“I can feel it, with supporters as much as anything else but throughout the club it is there. The players have been excellent but I thought in pre-season we did not perform well in those games. The results didn’t worry me but performances weren’t great, I must say.
“But there has been a real uplift within the squad with those players coming in, which is really great.”
Of course, O’Neill can’t resist a self-deprecating gag and when it was put to him that Johnson had cited his new manager’s ambitions as part of his motivation for signing, the Sunderland boss allowed a mischievous smile to cross his lips.
“I don’t know what he means,” he said. “We were persuading him to come and once he escaped from the van we were trying to kidnap him in, he turned round and said ‘Yeah I’m coming’!
“In all seriousness, we would like to improve the club and try to give it a position I genuinely feel it deserves. Whether we do is another thing, but the football club and supporters definitely deserve it.”
Part of that is about entertaining the locals, as O’Neill readily admits. The Sunderland boss has bristled all summer long at accusations that he is a ‘route one’ manager who was bound to look at big target men to fit his 4-4-2 style. He argues that his style of play is much more nuanced than that and says that, while height is a common factor in the front men who play in his sides, they all have the technique to play a short, sharp passing game.
That is all very well, but the Black Cats’ opening-day draw with Arsenal was about as far away from being entertaining as you can get. It was effective, certainly, but it was a limited game-plan that was forced on O’Neill because of the unique set of circumstances that he faced.
Now, he says, there is an added dimension to Sunderland’s play.
“We didn’t have players in at Arsenal,” he admits.
“I knew we would get tired, so I was delighted with a point there. That actually gave the lads a lift, but we do have other options now.
“I am really pleased with what we’ve done. I think we’ve added talent and genuine quality. Of course there is a worry once the deadline goes about picking up three or four injuries but, certainly, we are better equipped than last year.
“I genuinely feel we are a threat and that is good news on both sides of midfield. If we can combine that then it should be a good time for this football club.”
To cap Sunderland’s transfer efforts, they have managed to secure Stéphane Sessègnon on a new three-year deal despite some very real concerns back in May that he may seek a move away from Wearside.
As it turned out, Kieran Richardson was the only first-team regular to head out of the door but his desire for a new challenge was recognised long before yesterday’s switch to Fulham.
The late flurry of business at the Stadium of Light came and went and allows O’Neill to finally get on with the job of managing his much-improved squad.
“I’ll be delighted when it’s over,” he admitted.