Saturday 16 August, a new season, but the same old problems. Sunderland ended last season with a threadbare squad and have started this season with, well, an even more threadbare squad.
Wes Brown rolled back the years filling in at right back for Santiago Vergini, forgotten man Valentin Roberge started the season at centre half and last season’s saviour Connor Wickham began the campaign on the left wing.
With this is mind, can we really afford to sell Connor Wickham and leave another gaping hole in an already depleted squad?
With memories of Colback’s departure so fresh in peoples’ minds, it is easy to see why people feel Wickham should be given an ultimatum over his future. If he signs a contract extension, great, but if talks continue to stall we could still recoup most of the transfer fee paid for the under 21 international. Either way this would avoid the yearlong contract saga experienced with Jack last season.
However, letting him go would be a short term disaster for the club. After spending the best part of three seasons warming the bench or out on loan, Wickham ended the season in superb form, looking sharper with a more refreshing attitude than he had previously shown in a red and white shirt. Whether he replicates this form remains to be seen, but his positive attitude continued in pre-season and despite no assurances over his future he worked hard in an unfamiliar left hand side role on Saturday.
More than anything, our lack of alternatives up front is disturbing. Stephen Fletcher has struggled for fitness and form, Altidore is well, just Altidore and the less said about Danny Graham the better. So allowing Wickham, our only striker with any recent scoring pedigree to leave the club would be suicidal.
Even if we were to recoup significant funds for other transfers, a better replacement is not guaranteed. The British market has been even more ridiculously inflated than ever, Shane Long, who has never scored more than eight goals in a Premier League season, going to Southampton for £12 million and Robert Snodgrass joining Hull for £6 million are just two examples of relatively average players commanding huge transfer fees. Even if the foreign market can generally provide better value, Nacho Scocco and Jozy Altidore demonstrated that it is harder to score prolifically in this country than in the majority of continental leagues, so bringing in a big money replacement for Wickham would represent a huge gamble, whether it came from abroad or this country.
By keeping Wickham until at least January Sunderland could find a very favourable compromise between letting him leave for nothing and selling now to recoup the £8 million paid for him. Whether his motive was to earn a contract at the club or to find employment elsewhere it would be in his own interests to work as hard as possible for the club and attempt to replicate the form he demonstrated last season.
So despite the tendency in the modern game to view football clubs as businesses and players as assets; in the immediate future of Sunderland, Connor Wickham needs to be viewed as the footballer who can score the goals to keep Sunderland in the top flight for yet another season, rather than the man who can bring in a few quid to help balance the books.