Have Sunderland Learned Nothing In The Transfer Market?

Sunderland’s deadline-day signing of Laurens De Bock brought to an end a protracted summer of seemingly scattergun recruitment. Have they made the same mistake again as in seasons past? Michael Lough explores the Black Cats’ “it’ll be fine” strategy that appears to have reared its head once more

In May 2014, Phil Bardsley left Sunderland to join Stoke City after his contract at the Stadium of Light expired.

Few people mourned his departure and any feelings of sadness were based on sentiment rather than Bardsley’s ability as a footballer.

Sure, his redemption story from being exiled under Paolo Di Canio to scoring a goal which caused complete and utter carnage in the away at Old Trafford was inspiring. Yes, he was largely solid and dependable, he may have scored the occasional screamer; but it was generally accepted that if we were to break the cycle of relegation battles, we needed better.

A few days later we signed a player who was not immediately recognisable as a household name and was obtained on a free transfer, as the PG version of the ‘super Billy Jones’ chant went.

Mag slaying aside, Jones had a torrid time on Wearside with performances ranging from being flat out to be average to downright terrible before he eventually left for Rotherham in 2018.

This wasn’t Billy Jones’ fault, he was an honest enough pro and he is certainly not to blame for the four year contract he received, but this transfer rather sums up the short sightedness of the club’s recruitment policy over the years.

We nearly found the answer to our right back problem the following season when Anthony Reveillere joined the club on a free transfer after his release from Napoli. But the Frenchman retired at the end of the 2014-15 season and our pursuit of a competent player to replace him continued.

Since then we have signed no fewer than six right backs, Adam Matthews, DeAndre Yedlin, Javier Manquillo, Donald Love and Tyias Browning have all failed to live up to expectations to varying degrees and Conor McLaughlin has made a tough start to life on Wearside.

In essence we’ve spent 11 transfer windows trying to correct the mistake of allowing Phil Bardsley to leave on a free without a proper process for replacing him being in place.


Fast forward to 2019 and we appear to have learned absolutely nothing from our mistakes. We allowed Reece James to leave back in June, fully aware that after the inevitable departure of Bryan Oviedo we would only have one left back at the club.

Despite this, it took us to the final day of the transfer window to sign Laurens De Bock on loan until the end of the season. Naturally, De Bock was not our first choice signing, Jack Ross has admitted that he’s had a number of deals scuppered by the lure of Championship football.

However, it shows a lack of forward planning when we allowed Reece James to leave and suggests an ‘it’ll be okay in the end’ attitude. We are now in a position where we have two left backs with just 20 games of English senior football under their belts and a right back in Conor McLaughlin who played just eight times for Millwall during the 2018-19 season. Of course, we also have Luke O’Nien to call upon, but he has only played half a season in his new role, so still struggles on occasion despite his obvious hard work and enthusiasm.

This is simply not good enough for a team heading into its second season in English football’s third tier for the first time in their history. Last season there were mitigating circumstances behind the club’s slightly scattergun approach to the transfer market, we needed bodies in and we needed them in quickly. Unfortunately, this led to another overhaul being required ahead of this summer’s transfer market.

Lee Burge, George Dobson and Jordan Willis look like promising additions and Marc McNulty has shown glimpses of quality but from our opening few games it looks as though we are harbouring the same problems as last season. Not only that, but the signings of De Bock and Joel Lynch look like the type of signing I would make on Football Manager when I realise that I’ve got no left back and nobody else that is ‘listed for loan’ wants to sign for me, so I sign anyone who represents a club I’ve vaguely heard of.

Relegation to League One was a great opportunity to start again, have a clear, cohesive transfer policy and try and stick with it as the club rebuilt itself from the bottom.

On paper, our squad should be good enough to win the league but as things stand we are weaker in the full back areas, still lack variety in centre midfield and look unsure of how to get the best out of the forwards at the club, especially Will Grigg.

Relegation to League One was a great opportunity to start again, have a clear, cohesive transfer policy and try and stick with it as the club rebuilt itself from the bottom.

Ultimately, we’ve done nothing of the sort, we’ve not prioritised youth, we have not established a clear way of playing and we remain in a position where the club feels a bit directionless.

Should promotion be achieved, how many players do you think would be capable of making the step up? The chances are, a massive overhaul of personnel would have to occur again and we would be stuck in the same position we have been in for years, where we have to try and cover for past mistakes and end up making even more in the process.

Charlie Methven made the comment shortly after he arrived that Sunderland needed a more ‘meat and two veg approach’ to finances rather than relying on a sugar hit to sustain us.

This is an admirable sentiment but in terms of transfers we have appeared to rely on the sugar hit of singing the likes of Will Grigg and Grant Leadbitter rather than implementing a meat and two veg strategy of setting a transfer model to get us back to where we need to be.

Michael Lough