In football, more often than not, it is the ends rather than the means that matter. If you’re playing well and losing one-nil every week, chances are you won’t carry favour for too long; play badly and win every week and few will find much to complain about.
So, it seems for transfers. Sunderland’s month-long pursuit of Will Grigg looked as lifeless as Steve Brookstein’s music career at around 10pm last night, before a plot twist Netflix couldn’t have written better themselves. Five bids had done little to encourage Wigan Athletic to release a striker with a rumoured penchant for self-immolation, but a sixth did the trick. No sooner had Keith Downie tweeted the news than was Wearside’s mood transformed, anger giving way to glee, fear conceding to hope.
An hour later, 20 minutes after the window didn’t so much slam as it was gently pushed into place, confirmation arrived that the deal sheet for Grigg’s transfer had been submitted in time and the club had their man. Grigg, who has spent much of his career at this level, is four shy of a century of League One goals and represents the kind of signing most felt was essential in the wake of Josh Maja’s departure.
Wigan had been understandably miffed at the opening offer for the Northern Irishman, with the refusal of a £125k deal only delayed by the amount of time it took The Latics to stop blinking in disbelief. By noon Thursday that bid had risen 12-fold to £1.5m but now, knowing the desperation of the men across the table, the Championship side were in no mood to bend easily. Eventually, when the two sides did come to an agreement, it was rumoured to be for £3m, with an extra £1m on top should Grigg pull up as many trees as Jack Ross surely hopes he will and keep scoring goals that take us all the way to the Premier League.
To put that into context, £3m comprises more than the rest of this season’s League One sides have spent on incoming players combined. Stewart Donald said in his very first press conference that Sunderland would have ‘the biggest ever budget in League One’ and so it has proven, with the owner having to loosen the purse strings considerably to get a man they’ve wanted all month long. Finally, as snow fell outside and most were just about hauling themselves to bed in disappointment, Sunderland’s perseverance paid off.
Having lost Maja, they have now replaced him with a genuine goal threat, one whom they hope will repay their investment by swiftly firing the club back into the second tier. What is more, yesterday saw the arrivals of both Lewis Morgan and Kazaiah Sterling on loan, from Celtic and Spurs respectively. The latter is a largely unknown quantity with a good scoring record at youth level. The former, though, was key to Ross’ successful St Mirren side, and should add some much-needed pace and competition in wide areas. Combine that with the arrivals of Grant Leadbitter and Jimmy Dunne and it is clear to see the Ross’ squad looks a lot stronger than it did a month ago.
That is an undeniable positive and provides fresh impetus to a side that has in recent weeks gone a tad stale. We now face AFC Wimbledon the league’s bottom side bolstered. Knowing where he stands and what he has to deal with, Ross can now focus on the main matter of importance this season: promotion.
None of which should allow for a wholesale revision of the club’s dealings this winter. Setting a public deadline for Maja to sign a new contract did nothing to help the situation and likely just inflamed it. Defenders of that move argued it would enable the club to know where they stood well in advance of the transfer deadline and act accordingly. But that wasn’t what transpired. Instead the club essentially ignored their own cut-off point and did their utmost to keep the young goalscorer, only succumbing to defeat with a week of January remaining.
By that time their desperation was clear, to the extent that Wigan boss Paul Cook saw no issue with publicly detailing how many bids had failed to meet his own club’s approval. With the Grigg deal looking increasingly unlikely, Donald and co. turned their attentions elsewhere and, though there was doubtless some mischievous journalism at work, the situation looked increasingly farcical as time wore on. One could have been forgiven for confusing a list of League One’s top scorers with Sunderland’s target list, as each passing hour brought rumours of a new bid for one of the third tier’s top marksmen.
By the time the likes of Tom Eaves and John Marquis and plenty more besides had been both rumoured then ruled out, the club were left with nowhere else to go but back to the North West. Charlie Methven confirmed last weekend that a decision was made to invest this January in the hope of increasing the likelihood of promotion, but even he did not expect the club would have to be pushed quite this far. Since their arrival on Wearside the new owners have spoken of sustainability, of counting the pennies to take care of the pounds and, perhaps above all else, of making sure deals are right for the football club. Acceding to Wigan’s demands was a decision not taken lightly but, ultimately, the need was too great to ignore.
In that ALS interview last weekend Methven had spoken about how ‘the point of a negotiation is to meet in the middle.’ If this is the middle then someone needs a new spirit level. Wigan have gotten their corn and then some, tripling the fee they themselves paid for Grigg over three years ago. With only Charlie Wyke as a recognised senior striker – Duncan Watmore, at a push, may also qualify – no one at Sunderland needed telling just how necessary it was to find a proper replacement for Maja. Evidently, no one at Wigan did either.
Donald will doubtless play down the negatives and accentuate the positives. That is his prerogative. Truthfully, if Grigg helps the side get promoted this all fades into the ether anyway. The payment schedule is actually, £1m down immediately, £1m in the summer and other add ons depending on promotion through three divisions. Balanced alone against the backdrop of the extra £10m the club expects to recoup in gate and commercial revenues in the Championship looks a lot better. But it is interesting that the new regime was driven to such a point whereby they have, in essence, had to cave to demands and do away with their own strategy and pay more than Wigan originally asked for.
Whatever your view, few could argue they were overjoyed to part with the sums they’ve ultimately had to. You can’t always get what you want, goes the Rolling Stones refrain, and in this case for Sunderland that was a proven goalscorer at a reasonable price. But you might find that you get what you need and, regardless of the means by which they arrived at the triumphant end, Sunderland will certainly feel they’ve got that. Now he just needs to score goals.
Over to you, Will.