I don’t think I’m overstating the importance of the January window, but the biggest effect August to December has on the outcome of a club’s season is deciding what calibre of player they can attract, and whether they can keep hold of any star performers they have.
Getting January right can propel a club from mid-table mediocrity or even outside relegation candidates to promotion contenders. Getting it wrong can do the opposite. What happens in May is largely dependent on the events of the coming days.
In our past two campaigns, failure to attract quality players has essentially confirmed our relegation. Incomings have generally consisted of players with points to prove who spectacularly failed to prove them. Take last season for instance. Hindsight made parts of the Netflix documentary painful in parts, but no interview was more agonising than the footage of a Sunderland fan reacting positively to the signing of Lee Camp.
Apart from Kazenga Lua Lua, the remaining trio were young loanees whose parent clubs were looking to baptise them in fire. In the space of five months Ovie Ejaria, Jake Clarke-Salter and Ashley Fletcher experienced what is likely to be the most difficult footballing climate they will ever play in.
In these three cases, the dire state of the club was its unique selling point, and though their contributions were not enough for Sunderland, their careers will no doubt benefit from their spells at the Stadium of Light. Whilst being far from ideal, the shocking start and financial oblivion left the club rummaging in the bargain bin come January and they paid for it with their Championship status.
Similarly, the season before, Sunderland were battling for their Premier League lives and hampered by the desperate financial situation. David Moyes was tasked with adding quality and depth to a desperate squad, all while having to replace the outgoing Patrick van Aanholt. As with most Moyes signings, he looked to players and clubs he had managed previously, taking chances on injury plagued duo Bryan Oviedo and Darron Gibson and 34-year-old free agent Joleon Lescott.
After the January transfer window equivalent of waving a white flag, Sunderland spent the next few months stumbling through their remaining fixtures waiting to be put out of their misery, until Bournemouth obliged. Like last season, the fact relegation was a distinct possibility meant that Sunderland were relying on David Moyes’ contacts list for their Premier League survival and gambled on players who ultimately could not turn things around.
This window is also now the third one in a row which has seen the loss of a key player, those being Maja, Grabban and van Aanholt. In the previous years, these losses were exacerbated by the failure to replace these players adequately. Had Grabban and van Aanholt stayed, the outcomes of the respective seasons may not have been different, but without them the worst-case scenario was all but guaranteed. One can only hope that history does not repeat itself for a third time.
It isn’t all doom and gloom though; though less recent than the previous examples, Sunderland have used the January window to great effect in recent years. With the club in a familiarly perilous situation in January 2016, Sam Allardyce looked abroad for fresh faces. It was a gamble which, short term, secured the club’s future. In came Jan Kirchhoff, Dame Ndoye, Wahbi Khazri and Lamine Kone. Admittedly, in terms of long-term impact these signings were less successful, but in the short term they were the shot in the arm the club needed to edge over the line with a game to go.
Beyond that, the arrivals of Danny Simpson, Jonny Evans, Carlos Edwards and Stern John formed the basis of a team which lost only once in the final twenty games of 2006/07 as Roy Keane’s side stormed to the Championship summit and secured the title on the final day at Luton Town.
Though there is still time left for this January to emulate 2007 and 2016, it is ticking by quickly. Even if the club managed to secure all their targets before the deadline, they must still be integrated into the squad and hit the ground running for the hectic February schedule. It is a tall order, but if it can be achieved, this could be a memorable season.