If May was the awakening of Sunderland AFC, then June so far must surely comprise the club’s mid-morning slumber. Where last month saw the club roused by the arrival of new owners, the past fortnight or so have been an altogether more muted affair.
That is not to say the good news has ceased, as even on Tuesday Stewart Donald’s announcement of the long overdue replacement of the Stadium of Light’s seats was met with wide approval. But what this month has seen is a slowdown in the previously rapid procession of joyful statements, as manager, chairman and plenty more besides settle in to take on the task before them.
Make no mistake, Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and Jack Ross have inherited a tough hand. Though the positivity espoused from the trio since their respective arrivals on Wearside has been welcomed, and has indeed made their task somewhat easier given the backing it has inspired, it remains that there is an awful lot to be done before the season kicks off on August 4th.
When the club announced its retained player list last Thursday, it highlighted that just 13 players over the age of 24 will remain on the books following the end of this month. Few tears were shed about those soon to depart – though offering John O’Shea a coaching role might not have been the worst of moves – and the ridding from the club’s midst of several of those who will continue to be contracted would be welcomed by most.
Yet such a high level of turnover is indicative of the monumental task now facing the new ownership and their manager. Of those 13, at least seven – Lee Cattermole, Papy Djilobodji, Wahbi Khazri, Lamine Kone, Didier Ndong, Bryan Oviedo and Jack Rodwell – command a weekly wage that would on its own be too rich for the blood of most League One clubs, never mind in conjunction with the other six.
Stewart Donald has repeatedly confirmed that the club is able to foot the hefty bill those salaries ultimately result in, with the new owner remaining steadfast in his view that players should only be allowed to leave if the requisite level of incoming fee is forthcoming. His unwillingness to let players go for minimal amounts certainly marks a break with the recent past.
Clean slates work well in theory but are difficult to come by practice. For all the new hierarchy may have imbued optimism, the actions of those now departed will not simply vanish into the ether. The attempted sale of Ndong last week was a case in point.
Donald’s refusal to budge on the player’s valuation was admirable, resulting in a sizeable £6.6m bid from Torino eventually being accepted. Yet when Ndong refused a move to Italy because his would-be suitors couldn’t meet his wage demands, both Donald and Sunderland were powerless to push him back towards southern Europe. Torino finished ninth in Serie A last season, yet are unable to match Ndong’s wages even after he has endured a cut of 40%. The mistakes of the past regime will not be swept aside as easily as we might hope.
The possibility of all of those seven players remaining on Wearside come the closing of the transfer window on August 9th appears, thankfully, to be rather remote. Khazri scoring against England on Monday evening might have much of the nation cursing but it is difficult not to think the new inhabitants of the Sunderland boardroom might allow themselves a wry smile should such an event transpire. Even if it doesn’t, it seems unlikely that no one will be willing to take a chance on the undoubtedly talented Tunisian. Likewise, Oviedo, representing Costa Rica, will surely arouse the interest of someone who can afford him.
Shifting the others might prove more difficult, particularly if, like Ndong and Rodwell, they are willing to sit tight and gather up their millions. The new owners can hold out for all the fees they like but if other clubs aren’t willing to play ball then they could leave themselves in a rather precarious position indeed.
This all goes without mentioning the vast number of incomings that will be required over the next two months or so. Even if the aforementioned Maleficent Seven remain at the club, their commitment to the cause is questionable and, as was the case for some last season, loans out would be more likely than playing in the third tier. Given that much of the squad is believed to want away – including, disappointingly, the likes of Joel Asoro – the rebuilding job on Ross’ hands is daunting. Think Harchester United after the team bus blew up and you’re probably not too far wrong.
Some have already started to voice concerns about the lack of activity. That may be a little hasty. Many within the profession are still on, or just returning from, their summer holidays. Moreover, rushing into signings would do little to reassure observers that the club is seeking to rectify its well-documented recruitment problems of recent years. But by the same token, the time in which new recruits can arrive is quickly shortening, whilst the club’s lengthy list of requirements remains unaltered.
The club’s new head of recruitment, Tony Coton, set off a few alarms on Tuesday too, stating his belief that “I think we need to get a few out of the door first.” That seemed to fly in the face of Donald’s previous proclamation about the club having a bigger budget than many Championship clubs, though in truth it is also good business sense to not heap more wages on top of the already vast sums due out. Coton did go on to confirm that the club had received “enquiries for almost all of our players”, but it is hard not to think that at some point the powers that be will have to choose between driving a hard bargain and doing what has become imperative.
The pitfalls surrounding the new men in town have arisen via the negligence of previous incumbents. Donald, Methven and Ross have all spoken well in recent weeks and their willingness to right as many wrongs as humanly possible is not only admirable but enthusing. Yet all the goodwill in the world will not ensure plain sailing. Tough decisions will need to be made. The recent swathe of redundancies across all levels of the club is testament to that.
Sunderland’s new hierarchy does not have the benefit of starting from year zero. They have inherited a situation that many wouldn’t have touched with a barge-pole, with or without the previous owner clearing some of the financial hurdles in the way. So far they have approached their task with vigour and excitement. But completing the toughest part of their initial remit and achieving an important goal – getting a squad fit and ready for an immediate promotion push – looks troublingly far off right now.