Sunderland clear-out a risky strategy or necessary step?

Stephane Sessegnon
Stephane Sessegnon

THE BIG-MONEY sale of Simon Mignolet is not likely to be the last high profile departure from the Stadium of Light this summer.

With Sunderland willing to listen to offers for the likes of Stephane Sessegnon and Lee Cattermole, Paolo Di Canio’s starting XI could have a very different complexion against Fulham on the opening day.

SportMail’s Chris Young examines Sunderland’s strategy and whether such a dramatic overhaul is a risk or a necessary step.

THE TRAPPINGS and spoils of being a Premier League footballer never captivated Simon Mignolet during his three years on Wearside.

The humble Audi A4 purchased on his arrival at the Stadium of Light in the summer of 2010 remained his means of transport throughout his Sunderland career. There was no fleet of cars like some of his team-mates.

Neither was Mignolet one to crow over his own contribution.

When describing the most spectacular saves from last season, Mignolet would brush them off as merely part of his job or playing his part in a collectively sound defensive performance.

Even when Mignolet’s form culminated in the accolade of being voted North East Football Writers’ Player of the Year, he shrugged off the hoopla.

At the awards ceremony on a Sunday night in Durham, I asked him whether his parents had come across from Belgium.

“No,” he replied. “They wouldn’t have been able to get back in time for work on Monday.”

“Couldn’t they have taken a sicky?” was my baffled response.

“No... we don’t do things like that in Belgium,” was Mignolet’s answer.

It summed up Mignolet’s no-nonsense character.

This was a guy 100 per cent focused on the mental and physical demands of training and games.

While there were plenty of high-fives and cheer among the Sunderland squad after the derby win at St James’s in April, Mignolet waltzed around with a smile like a kid in a sweet shop. Winning the derby meant that much to him.

That was part of the reason why Mignolet developed such a firm bond with supporters, who began to serenade him to their version of the Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Yes, the saves helped, particularly the penalty stop from Demba Ba in the 2011-12 derby on Tyneside.

But fans also recognised that Mignolet was a dogged, dedicated performer, whose contribution last season was one of the prime differences between Premier League survival and Championship obscurity.

To lose a player with such a rare mindset is an almighty blow for Sunderland and no-one should argue otherwise.

Yet with financial prudence becoming a watch-word at the Stadium of Light this summer, the departure of Mignolet is perhaps a necessary evil.

There is certainly credence to the argument that Liverpool have landed Mignolet for a reasonable fee, even if Sunderland paid St Truiden just £2million three years ago.

Considering Sunderland shelled out £9m for Craig Gordon following promotion to the top flight, Mignolet could fall into the bargain category after shining last season.

But with no new contract likely to be signed, Sunderland have still banked a decent figure, with the £9m-plus significantly boosting the transfer kitty available to Paolo Di Canio and director of football Roberto De Fanti.

Goalkeeper is arguably the only position where Sunderland can boast any strength in depth too.

Keiren Westwood has surely been the most unfortunate player at the club over the last two years and will prove to be a more than adequate replacement for the new Liverpool custodian.

The same cannot be said though if Sunderland offload Lee Cattermole and Stephane Sessegnon.

Di Canio clearly has a very different view on the pair to his predecessor, with Martin O’Neill handing both new contracts last season.

But the duo remain among Sunderland’s best performers and there were certainly starker culprits for Sunderland’s plunge into the relegation dogfight.

Cattermole and Sessegnon are not without their problems.

The skipper has been dogged by injuries and suspensions throughout his Sunderland career and a tally of a modest 74 league starts in four years tells its own story.

Sessegnon, meanwhile, is too often a frustrating figure, particularly when he was a shadow of his former self at the start of last season after clearly being affected by a summer of speculation over his future.

For a club among the pack of Premier League sides outside the top six, Sunderland cannot afford to carry passengers like that, while the almost annual murmurs of transfer rumour-mongering are understood to have irritated Ellis Short.

But for all his problems, Sessegnon has been a key figure for Sunderland over the last two seasons - the paltry nature of the Black Cats’ attack over the final three games of the campaign when he was suspended, are evidence of that.

Sessegnon is the one player in the squad capable of linking the play, drawing defenders or ghosting past his man.

Likewise, when his match fitness is up and running - admittedly the big deficiency in his game - Cattermole has been the lynchpin and driving force of the side.

Sunderland’s midfield rarely convinced once Cattermole’s unexpectedly lengthy spell on the sidelines began last November and he was a major miss for O’Neill during the second half of the season.

The Black Cats could be expected to recoup around £10m if they manage to offload both Cattermole and Sessegnon, plus remove two significant salaries from the wage bill.

But can Sunderland adequately replace them?

It is not something the club have done particularly well over the last two years.

Since the big money departures of Darren Bent, Jordan Henderson and (an admittedly overweight and uninterested) Asamoah Gyan, the only time Sunderland have looked like a top 10 side was in the first three months of O’Neill’s reign.

The removal of those pieces of quality in the jigsaw has proved immensely damaging to the club’s progress and neither Steve Bruce nor O’Neill were able to repair the gulf.

There is of course a different regime now in charge of recruitment.

Chief scout Valentino Angeloni has a reputation for unearthing hidden gems, while De Fanti is clearly a man with contacts across the Continent and South America.

An overhaul of the squad is necessary too after catastrophe was so narrowly averted in a dismal campaign.

But offloading two of the better players in the squad is a risky strategy and one which could dramatically backfire, if Sunderland don’t recruit adequate replacements.

Among the Bosman signings already secured, only ball-winning midfielder Cabral can be classed as offering a replacement for Cattermole or Sessegnon.

It is Sunderland’s chase for the likes of Jozy Altidore, John Guidetti, Matej Vydra and Alfred Duncan which will determine whether the overhaul is a success, although Di Canio will still face the arduous task of gelling an influx of overseas recruit into a Premier League team.

Revolution was undoubtedly needed to an under-achieving squad.

But the fire-sale of the stand-out figures needs to be accompanied by new recruits who prove to be red hot.