To see Didier Ndong depart for pastures new last night was to witness the essence of Sunderland’s recent demise. Ndong arrived as something of an unknown quantity seventeen months ago, but that did not deter the club from parting with a record transfer fee to acquire his services. Now, less than two-fifths of his way into a five-year contract, Ndong finds himself loaned out to Watford, with a view to a permanent deal in the summer. It is almost certain that he won’t play for Sunderland again.
In return for that £13.6m transfer fee – and a rumoured £30,000 a week in wages – Ndong provided a solitary goal, four assists and, in his final game for the club, a red card. His was a stay that offered initial promise but, amid the shambles unfolding around him, soon saw the Gabonese midfielder fall into a hole that seems to envelop all those who trespass Wearside nowadays. By the end, Ndong was desperate to depart; the club, in dire financial straits, were similarly desperate to see him go.
If Ndong were an isolated incident it would be a shame, a regret, but little more besides. He is not. Rather, Didier Ndong represents just another in a long line of wastage on Sunderland’s behalf. Steven Fletcher. Adam Johnson. Danny Graham. Jozy Altidore. Emanuele Giaccherini. Jack Rodwell. Ricky Alvarez. Wahbi Khazri. Fabio Borini. Jeremain Lens. Papy Djiolobodji. All have arrived for vast transfer sums and the requisite wages that accompany them. None have left for more than was spent on them, and few have offered much whilst at the club. In the case of the latter four, they find themselves out on loan yet still contracted to Sunderland, a club they, like Ndong, will never play for again. Add those five together and you have a set of players that have commanded not far shy of £50m worth of transfer fees and have summarily failed in red and white stripes. Alvarez, meanwhile, didn’t even sign for the club and still cost the thick end of £9m.
And that is why Sunderland find themselves where they are right now. Last season’s relegation was, in some quarters at least, seen as an opportunity. A stint out of the Premier League would allow for a clearing of the decks, a shifting of the deadwood. The Championship had not posed Sunderland too many troubles in the past – their past five seasons in the division had seen them finish third, first, third, first and first.
Such a view has been proven to be wholly naïve. Demotion under David Moyes was slowly endured and painfully inevitable, but even last summer few were able to determine quite how deeply the rot had set in. Simon Grayson’s swift transformation from jovial optimist to bumbling fantasist was put down to his own inadequacies, yet the arrival of Chris Coleman and his own inability to arrest Sunderland’s slide has made it glaringly obvious that the club’s maladies constitute far more than the odd flesh wound.
Life in the Championship is not how Sunderland remember it. Thirteen years ago, Mick McCarthy spent a summer scouring the lower leagues for talent and came up with three relative gems in the forms of Dean Whitehead, Liam Lawrence and Stephen Elliott. Promotion, a pre-season pipe dream, was achieved as champions.
Fast forward over a decade and the likelihood of a repeat was all but non-existent. Grayson’s transfers have rightly come in for much derision – the club has already made a loss on James Vaughan, one of only three players to command a fee – and few have done anything to improve what remained from the relegation wreckage. But to expect him to mirror the joys McCarthy experienced would have been foolish in the extreme. The money could have been spent better, Jason Steele was signed as seemingly the only goalkeeper in the world with an allergy to footballs, but when given barely over a million pounds to spend it is little surprise that no promotion push has been forthcoming this term.
As the likes of Wolves and Middlesbrough dispensed of fees that surpassed Sunderland’s own record outlay on Ndong, the Black Cats found themselves ambling around the beach with a metal detector, hoping in vain that they may stumble across gold. It is an approach that has continued into the winter, with Chris Coleman offered quite literally nothing to spend on transfer fees, forced instead to rely on loans and free transfers.
Jake Clarke-Salter comes highly regarded on loan from Chelsea. Ovie Ejaria, confirmed in the aftermath of another humbling at Birmingham City, does likewise, from Liverpool. Yet both are just twenty years of age, neither having even been born when the Stadium of Light sprang from Monkwearmouth Colliery and, supposedly, ushered in a new era. They are mere footballing toddlers, pitched into a relegation battle that can rightly be described as the joint-lowest point in Sunderland’s long history. Clarke-Salter has already endured the concession of seven goals in two away games. Another shellacking of confidence no doubt awaits in the near future.
Coleman’s defiance in the face of adversity is admirable. His perseverance in the market shows clearly that the club has a manager with the stomach for the fight. But to expect a silk purse from a sow’s ear is as foolhardy now as it was in the summer. The club isn’t so much scraping the barrel as it is lifting it from the floor and rummaging through the underlying detritus.
Kazenga LuaLua is a punt, signed as much because he showed willing as for his footballing abilities. Andy Lonergan, should he arrive from Leeds, will have been bought only because Steele and Robin Ruiter couldn’t catch a cold in the Arctic Circle. Chris Martin’s dithering has seen Coleman tell him he is no longer wanted, but the very fact the striker is seemingly unable to decide between warming Derby County’s bench and playing for Sunderland speaks volumes as to the club’s current state of attractiveness.
The Championship is a very different beast to what it was ten and twenty years ago. Far from offering the opportunity to start anew, the cut-throat nature of the league has only served to worsen Sunderland’s plight. It is galling, humiliating in many respects, to watch as other clubs splurge on their promotion pushes, whilst the club recouped £30m for Jordan Pickford in the summer and has parted with barely any of it.
That is, shamefully, a necessity. It is the result of more than half a decade of mismanagement, of too many short-term plans and little thought for the club’s long-term future. As another transfer window disappears into the distance, Sunderland have done little to inspire hope. A potential tumble into League One is the reality, not an ascension to the top tier. This is our fate now. This is where we are. This is life down here.