Sunderland at a crossroads, on the park and at the bank
The Black Cats' path could go either way, reports Kristan Heneage
You'll struggle to find a Sunderland fan that isn't happy with the season so far. They are currently sitting in the top half with their new dancing/striking sensation Asamoah Gyan taking to the league like the metaphorical duck to water.
Even the sale of Darren Bent hasn't dampened spirits too much. The ÃÂ£24m fee they received represents a record for the club. Sunderland's fans will be buoyed by the news that the money will be re-invested on the back of some audacious promises from Steve Bruce, who has claimed that he will break their current transfer records.
Nevertheless, the first real bump came with the announcement of the club's accounts, which made for scary reading. The wage bill saw a rise in addition to a recorded ÃÂ£27 million loss. Sunderland could be in real trouble if Ellis Short decides not to invest more money.
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It must be noted that the accounts came without the inclusion of money from Darren Bent's sale; nevertheless the fee is paid in instalments, with money owed to Tottenham in the form of a sell on clause.
With an average attendance of around 37,000 fans, the time to grow is now. However in the modern game, financial growth is not as easy as just saying it. Local rivals Newcastle benefit from a good recent history competing in the UEFA Cup and further back the Champions League. This has allowed them to become a well established name abroad but even they have looked to cut costs and restructure their wages.
Matters haven't been helped by Niall Quinn urging fans to stop watching games in pubs. His words garnered a largely negative response from the Black Cats faithful, with many seeing the comments as out of touch. Quinn is struggling to play the businessman with the fans because of his strong allegiance to the club, with many supporters seeing him as one of them.
Even if the club were to sell out the Stadium of Light every week, the money earned would not increase dramatically enough to cover the financial short fall elsewhere. To maintain growth and be a consistent top half side, they will need the investment of Ellis Short, a man who up to now has kept his cards very close to his chest. Many forget that the signing of Asamoah Gyan for ÃÂ£13 million was off set by the sale of Kenwyne Jones to Stoke for ÃÂ£8 million.
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The January signings of StÃÂ©phane Sessegnon and Sulley Muntari were a significant statement of intent. That said, the news that the latter took a 40% pay cut will please the financially conscious among Sunderland fans, who will want to avoid a fate similar to Muntari's last Premier League club Portsmouth.
After all, Portsmouth showed that for long term results, growth must be steady. Spending beyond your means is a dangerous business and a rapid rise like Manchester City's is rare but also risky as the club is then at the mercy of its rich financiers.
The other option available to Sunderland is growth through sales. Everton, Aston Villa and (whisper it) Newcastle have all sold players for large fees in order to finance improvements on the squad. Jordan Henderson has already been linked with a ÃÂ£15 million move south to Chelsea. Players like Martyn Waghorn and Grant Leadbitter are both former academy graduates that generated the club good money from moves to Leicester and Ipswich respectively.
Exciting prospects like Jack Colback, David Meyler and Billy Knott, the latter of whom was recently called up to the first team squad, reflects the club's new focus on youth development. They have become recognized as one of the youngest squads in the league, proven by the fact the average age of their team against Liverpool at Anfield this season was just over 24.
Thankfully for Sunderland, under Steve Bruce, even the club's poor signings have been cheap Ã¢ÂÂ unlike those signed under the tenure of Roy Keane, who openly admitted he regretted certain transfers days after completion.
The 'Three Amigos' Ã¢ÂÂ Argentine Marcos Angeleri and Paraguayan's Paulo Da Silva and Cristian Riveros Ã¢ÂÂ all arrived on Wearside for a total of under ÃÂ£5 million. Their probable departure will most likely see the club break even or record a small profit, making it not a completely wasted exercise.
It is without doubt that Sunderland's squad, much like Newcastle's, requires reinforcements come the summer. At the same time it will allow for a better gauge of the route they intend to take to progress in the league. Yet in the long term it still remains to be seen if an expensive summer for the Black Cats will leave the club counting the costs further down the line.