Mark Douglas: Sunderland recruitment worries understandable - but they've already done best deal

Getting Gus Poyet to sign a long-term contract was the most important deal of Sunderland's summer, even if they need more

Paul Thomas/Getty Images Gus Poyet manager of Sunderland
Gus Poyet manager of Sunderland

In 531 devastating days in red and white, Darren Bent swept home 32 goals in 58 games. Seven with his head, most from inside the box and one via a beach ball which now resides in the National Football Museum in Manchester.

For a brief, brilliant burst he was a goalscoring phenomenon.

In the stands they called him dynamite and on the pitch he left scorch marks.

There was an afternoon against Tottenham when he conspired to strike two of the worst penalties a Sunderland forward has ever taken. He still left the pitch with two goals.

One thousand, two hundred and seventy-five miserable days have passed since he completed a move to Aston Villa which left Sunderland gasping for breath at the ungratefulness of it all.

Since then he has scored 24. He now resides in Paul Lambert’s Villa Park ‘bomb squad’ – the colloquial term for a collection of unloved but lucratively rewarded professionals the second city club are desperately trying to shift. Sometimes, when you are fishing in the pool of players Lee Congerton is, ability is only part of the transfer trick.

Bent had talent but his subsequent CV shows he was operating well above his level during that spell on Wearside.

It was the perfect goalscoring storm: take a club which had rediscovered their confidence, an engaged owner, a manager who made him feel loved and a support which formed an intense and instant bond with a needy player and it produced something special.

It doesn’t always happen. Last summer, the Italian brains trust at the Stadium of Light (and I use that word advisedly) were offered Emanuel Giaccherini on terms the club could afford.

Team-building plans were altered. This was a full Italy international with a history of winning who could be brought to Sunderland.

The revolution had its vanguard.

Within a few weeks, Paolo di Canio was picking faults with him. The screaming, the shouting, the sheer outrageousness of Sunderland’s fraudulent manager: it all curdled into catastrophe.

Giaccherini was in and out of the team. For a player with his CV, it was desperate to see such unfulfilled potential.

It is only natural to cast a glance at Sunderland’s work so far this summer and surmise there is much still to do.

A team which had to muster the greatest escape in Premier League history to stay in the top flight will be performing another high-wire gamble if it goes into the new season with the squad in its current form. Before we start chewing fingernails, consider this: the most important signing Sunderland made this season was on May 28.

Gus Poyet’s three-year contract eases the nerves. If chemistry is the key, Sunderland have the right professor in their Uruguayan chief.

Congerton has one of the toughest jobs in the Premier League.

For years Sunderland’s recruitment has been badly wired: from Steve Bruce’s South American gambles to the brief African adventure, the Black Cats have not done well enough in the overseas market.

A lack of continuity of vision, strategy and approach has proved wounding.

Congerton is here to ensure that is corrected. He is ambitious and confident, with a Rolodex to match. There is a vision and a plan. I hate the word project but Congerton’s remit extends beyond a desperate scramble to pacify an egomaniac manager.

The problem is, he has a short-term salvage job to do in parallel with this.

Sunderland need a centre-back, a left-back, a creative midfielder and at least one striker. Then there is the Connor Wickham situation.

It’s a big in-tray for someone with a top-four budget, but with Ellis Short on your shoulder and running the numbers it looks even harder.

No one is going to commit to a club which nearly went down twice without financial assurances – but are they the players you want?

Sunderland’s ace in the pack is Poyet. Behind the scenes things are going on. The under-21s next season will play to the same system and style as the first team – an attempt by a manager who no longer feels as restless to lay foundations.

Poyet improved most of Sunderland’s squad by 5-10% last season.

Apart from a barmy few weeks after Wembley, there was an intelligent design about Sunderland’s systems and plans last term. Players liked him. The chemistry felt right.

Recruits are required urgently but I feel Sunderland’s most important deal has already been done – retaining the team-building talents of Poyet.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer