Mark Douglas: Cats need to buy smarter or it’s a safe bet they’ll toil again

There was a certain irony about the way Phil Bardsley’s Sunderland career came caving in on him over the weekend

Sunderland's Phil Bardsley
Sunderland's Phil Bardsley

There was a certain irony about the way Phil Bardsley’s Sunderland career came caving in on him over the weekend.

In a Tyneside casino while the rest of the working people slept, he won big – very big, judging by the collection of £50 notes surrounding him.

By the time the weekend’s trip to Spurs arrived it was apparent he had lost his Black Cats career and a whole heap of professional respect to boot.

That’s what happens when you make a bet you can’t win, which is something Bardsley and Matt Kilgallon did when they extended a night out into the wee hours last Wednesday.

Bardsley was daft and he did something distasteful.

He needed a short, sharp reminder of his professional responsibilities and a flea in his ear.

What he didn’t deserve was to become the symbol of everything which has been wrong with Sunderland these past few years, which is how it has felt this week.

To put it in context: Bardsley was probably always going to leave this summer.

He should have gone last close season, when it felt like all parties suspected a fresh start would benefit him.

However, former manager Martin O’Neill struggled to get the plethora of players he wanted.

Suddenly Bardsley was required so he ploughed on and failed to reach the standards of previous years.

It’s been a poor season, but his overall contribution to the Black Cats cause remains in credit.

An £850,000 Roy Keane buy, he has played nearly 150 times for Sunderland in the Premier League. He won player of the year two seasons ago and has always been ready and willing to help out the club at various functions, charity events and awards evenings.

It is the least you might expect of a footballer paid handsomely for doing a job he loves but it is more than could be said for some of the team-mates he has lined up with over the last five years.

The likes of Asamoah Gyan, for example – or even Djibril Cisse, who was applauded on his return to Sunderland last season.

Don’t even get me started on El-Hadji Diouf, Pascal Chimbonda and £4.5m George McCartney, who admitted he was not trying hard enough when he rejoined the club.

No, in the grand scheme of things Bardsley has been one of the better recruits since Sunderland returned to the Premier League. There lies the real problem on Wearside and the thing which shouldbe exercising Paolo Di Canio’s rage – the utter wastefulness of the last half-decade.

Di Canio bristles about time-keeping but the elephant in the corner at the Stadium of Light is recruitment – both under Short and the Irish consortium which preceded him.

Millions and millions of pounds have been lavished on building virtually a new side every summer but very little of it has been spent well.

There is little sell-on value and virtually no legacy from all of that spending.

We can talk about professionalism and discipline until the cows come home, but Sunderland’s players worked hard enough to beat Everton and Newcastle in the games which really mattered. What they didn’t have, especially considering they lost two key men to injury, was enough quality to sustain it over the longer term.

Is that because they were late for a team meeting or missed a weights session, or was it because the Black Cats have been incapable of importing players of the right quality over three or four successive managers now?

That is the issue which should be getting Sunderland fans heated rather than an ignominious night on the tiles.

This is the summer where Sunderland need to start getting it right.

They have appointed Robert Di Fanti to the role of director of football, but his credentials are unproven and the scope of his role is yet to be publicly defined.

It is impossible to make a prediction because he is an unknown, and no-one has discussed him much.

One thing is clear though: he needs to hit the ground running.

Sunderland need six or seven players of first-team quality and they need to work within the financial parameters Ellis Short has set for them.

Experience suggests decent scouting networks tend to be built up over a number of years.

The late nights in service stations after watching nothing games everywhere from Rochdale to Rouen are what count in a field whose best practitioners have brimming contact books and seemingly endless mobile phone bills.

Sunderland have made a change at the behest of Short and it was a call almost as important as shifting managers. Over the next three months, success will be measured in the players the new management team bring


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