Roy Keane and the great transfers debate (7)

More than one shirt to fill

The transfer window is fast approaching its halfway point. We knew what had to be done during this period and so, with his expressed optimism about pulling off two signings by today, did Roy Keane.

Let us take stock. In (and he already was in when Keano spoke): Jonny Evans, broadly a welcome acquisition after his superb season in the heart of our Championship defence but still a long way short of proven Premiership quality. And? Er, no one so far except Quintin Fortune, whose signing – if it happened – would not quite set Wearside hearts on fire.

It would be an early candidate for understatement of the year to say that this is a pretty disappointing return from what, we were entitled to hope, was weeks of preparatory work behind the scenes to ensure the right people came to the SoL.

The best that can be said is that there is still plenty of time before the window is slammed shut in our relegation-threatened faces. The worst is that our dismal first half of the season has scarcely left us the luxury of being able to relax. We need Premiership quality now; indeed we needed it by today – before facing ‘arry’s very useful Portsmouth side.

It has always been argued that the Championship – or Second Division to give it the unfashionably accurate title by which the French, among others, still know it – is one heck of a hard league to get out of. Nonsense. We’ve done it loads of times.

The really tough bit, for Sunderland at any rate, is how to show any reliable sign of being able to stay in the upper division.

In my career as a SAFC fan, as intermittently painful as it has been long, we have truly managed it once. The received wisdom that Peter Reid was a disaster for Sunderland AFC crassly overlooks the fact that only under him have we ever looked like establishing ourselves as a Premiership force.

That is not to underplay Reid’s role in the shocking plunge into our traditional mix of mediocrity, fear and failure. Whatever combination of skill and luck allowed him to lead us back to the Premiership in glorious style and then finish seventh top two seasons running, he demonstrably then blew it.

The rot set in midway through the second of those seasons of rare promise, with his refusal or inability to build on the unexpected run of top flight success by clinching the sort of signings that performance and our big club set-up made more possible than ever.

And the glorious strike force of Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn ominously began to fade as Reid, whether or not his hand was forced by a lack of boardroom ambition ans support, failed and failed again to respond to the need for serious team strengthening.

Yet at least Reid, for the best part of two or even three seasons (if we include his second promotion year), looked as if he was genuinely transforming us from serial under-achievers to a team capable of playing in European competition.

Roy Keane, by those standards as well as his own, is so far a failure, if only because he has not actually done any more than Mick McCarthy, that is to say get us up in deeply unpromising circumstances. And McCarthy can fairly claim that he had to do it the harder way, without the funds that were lavished on Keano to reshape the unimpressive squad he inherited.

Salut! Sunderland desperately wants Keane and Quinn to succeed, for their sakes as well as – though not as much as – for SAFC’s sake. If anything, we have found ourselves erring this season on the side of approval even when the evidence has, to put it at its most neutral, hardly been with us.

We do not underestimate the scale of the task, which is essentially one of not only identifying real Premiership-quality talent but persuading that talent, and its wife, to uproot to our Far Corner of the land.

To be scrupulously fair to Keane, we have to balance our impatience with his more measured words. Forget all the speculation, he says; he is still hopeful of landing the same four players he wanted before the window opened.

As is invariably the case when there are big issues to discuss concerning SAFC, some of the most incisive and articulate comment has been found at the Blackcats forum.

Let me quote a few examples:

Ian Todd turned with approval to the “spot on analysis” of that excellent Italian though American sounding pundit Gabriele Marcotti:

Keane doesn’t have an eye for player potential but has surrounded himself with players from Ireland, Trinidad & Tobago and Man. Utd. He cited O’Donovan as an example. He needs advice on signings from someone with more managerial experience. Steve Claridge waded in by wondering why we were playing McShane at centre-back when he played all last season at right back for WBA.

Andy Humble pitches in from Melbourne on the Savage saga:

I subscribe to 442 magazine and he, for some unbelievably stupid reason, had a column in it for a short time. All he did was talk about how good he was and how he’d done this and done that, defending himself for doing something stupid on or off the park, complete an utter w*****. He lasted a short time before the powers at 442 must have realised as well. Glad he went to Derby, but at least they have signed someone!!!!

To which Damian Kelf responded:

I agree he’s an absolute w*****, but he’s a w***** I would have liked to help us through the next 4 months. In other circumstances I wouldn’t have even entertained him coming to us. What the hell is the problem with bringing players to our club? Derby are worse than we were last time up but they’ve still signed 3 players so far – 2 of them with a LOT of Premiership experience.

Andy Nichol was unconcerned by Savage’s outburst about us not snapping him up, but added:

I am disappointed because, footballing ability apart (and he’s no Ronaldinho), he would have given us a voice on the pitch. We never seem to get in the ref’s ear (well, Yorke tries on the odd occasion he catches up with play) and we certainly don’t seem to have a leader on the field. Savage would have made a big difference here. On another matter, wasn’t RK making noises about the importance of looking in Europe for value some time back? Hunt, Taylor, Savage? Not many Euros earned by those three….

And then there were Mick Goulding’s thoughts on our lack of activity:

My hope is that it’s because we’re looking for really good players who are right for us. The problem then will be that they aren’t available (at least not at our kind of price). This was also the problem in the summer, when we ended up buying second-bests at over-inflated prices. I don’t want us to make the same mistakes. Everybody knows we’re desperate and people think we have money. That’s not a good position to be in, in a seller’s market (which is what the January sales is). That’s my hope. Of course, it may simply be that nobody decent is available (which is the norm for the January sales) and, of those who are, they wouldn’t want to come for a relegation battle.

No one at Blackcats, and certainly none of the trio of sufferers who put together Salut! Sunderland, has an easy answer. If we did, maybe we’d be picking up Keano’s £2m-a-year salary.

None of us can say that Keane will not yet seize triumph from the jaws of transfer window disaster. It is not – or not quite – beyond even the current squad, without further additions but necessarily with riproaring season’s second halves from Kenwyne, Kieran, Jonny and Craig, to snatch one more point than the the third bottom club.

That would hardly match the expectations held by large numbers of our established supporters, and virtually all the new Irish ones, after the Championship title was secured in spectacular style at Kenilworth Road. Most of us would settle for it now.

But I return to Blackcats for the only other positive way of looking at negativity, SAFC style.

Terry McLoughlin:

I’m not overly impressed with PL football as a spectator nor do I believe the Sky hype.
“You’re watching great football, believe us.” No we’re not. We’re playing football in a dead rubber (almost). Only relegation is at stake. If we were to be relegated I’d only feel the club would miss out on the money. I’m just as happy watching Championship football, travelling in expectation rather than hope I don’t look at the league tables nor look for other teams’ results on a Saturday night because they have little relevance to us outside of the bottom half-dozen. I suppose the same “half dozen” theory applies to the top six though.
The PL is very uninteresting.

In darker moments, in both heart and head, I find the thrust of Terry’s sentiments difficult to quarrel with. But they also amount to one defeatist step too far. And I bet he, like me, would jump for joy if Keano did manage to snatch a couple of seriously good players – and blow the cost – in time not only to save us but push us towards mid-table respectabilty this season and better things next.

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