With Sunderland hitting fourth in the Championship just after Christmas, January was billed as a test of the ownership group’s immediate ambitions.
Having rarely looked out of their depth in the first half of the season, with the exception of a chastening 4-2 loss against Burnley, a couple of quality signings and a bolstering of our striking options could have been enough to have a crack at the play-offs.
None of us were dreaming of the Premier League, of course, but a side that finishes in the top six in their first season back in the second tier quickly becomes a more exciting proposition to players who still might have previously viewed us as a car crash club.
So what are the intentions of our owners?
The transfer window has shut and we now have a single on-loan striker on the books.
A quick look at social media at 11pm on Tuesday evening revealed an angry fanbase – how did it come to this after what looked to be an encouraging window just a few days ago?
Having attracted Pierre Ekwah, Joe Gelhardt and Joe Anderson to the club, all highly-rated young players at Premier League sides, the final piece in the jigsaw was another striker.
I’m sure we will hear lots from the recruitment team on how it was never the intention to add a striker to the ranks, even after Ross Stewart’s season-ending injury or Ellis Simms’ unexpected return to Everton.
They tend to view the likes of Amad, Jack Clarke, Patrick Roberts and Isaac Lihadji as players who can play at the top of the attacking four for Sunderland, and I fully expect any interviews in the next few days to confirm this.
It’s never ‘strikers’ that are mentioned, just ‘forwards’ – their views are these positions are interchangeable.
And it’s all well and good if the recruitment team believe this, but there’s a problem. Tony Mowbray will almost certainly not agree with them.
Throughout his managerial career, almost without exception, Mowbray has relied on a number nine. Not your classic battering ram, but one that has clear ability that can also hold the ball up for players around him. A player that can create chances using his physicality but is also capable of scoring too.
Whether that be Roman Bednar or Ishmael Miller at West Bromwich Albion, Lukas Jutkiewicz at Middlesbrough, Danny Graham or Ben Brereton Diaz at Blackburn, Mowbray has always preferred his teams to have a focal point in attack.
He has praised Sunderland for how they played in the period without Stewart or Ellis Simms, but by his own admission said it was less than ideal.
And during the window, he said his team needed that focal point.
Mowbray told the Sunderland Echo: “Whether they sign another striker and Ellis can come back, I don’t know. It would be pretty appropriate for our team, to be able to give us that focal point and score some goals.”
But here we are again.
All of our attacking hopes rest on Joe Gelhardt, our exciting, highly-rated striker on loan from Leeds United. But he’s inexperienced, and that’s just not fair on him.
Of course, he might thrive, but there are too many unknowns at play for us to say that throwing all of our eggs in a Gelhardt basket is the best way forward.
Having worked with Mowbray before, Stuart Harvey, Sunderland’s head of recruitment, will have known all too well what Mowbray’s requests were going into the window. But anyone with any football sense will know that you need options in attack, whether it’s tricky wingers, clever number 10s, a target man, or a goal-poacher.
We’ve lost an important element of how we play, of how Tony Mowbray has liked to set his sides up – when he has a fit striker at his disposal, of course.
We have had an entire month and even longer to bolster that area of the squad.
Plenty has been said about employing a model in the mould of Brighton and Brentford, that attracts young, untested, promising prospects and then moves them on for a profit while never losing momentum.
They don’t lose momentum because they have a succession plan in place. Brentford’s B-team is designed to nurture the talent in the squad by playing a shadow team, so that if they were to sell one of their first team, there’s a ready-made replacement that can slot in. The recruitment team does not work to order, they are constantly bringing in players that can be developed.
Our model, in its infancy, is not there yet. We don’t have that bank of reserves, certainly in attack. Behind Gelhardt there is nobody. Absolutely nobody.
My issue with this transfer window is that this is not the first time it has happened. This is the third full window under the current regime, and the third time running that we’ve been left short in a particular area of the pitch.
It feels like a huge opportunity missed, and I’m not sure why it has once again been allowed to happen.
We still have a team brimming with raw potential and the ability to turn a game on its head, but I hope we’re not sitting in May wondering what could have been.