Black Cats cautious after Gyan saga
5 August ~ On July 6, Ghana's star striker Asamoah Gyan signed a five-year deal said to be worth somewhere in the region of £36 million. The club offering up this contract were Al-Ain FC, reigning champions and the United Arab Emirates' most successful club. Last season's title triumph was their tenth, more than any other team, and their first victorious campaign since 2004. Much of that was down to Gyan. Signed on loan from Sunderland for a fee of £6m Gyan scored 22 goals, enough to fire Al-Ain to the title. Amid accusations of greed, Gyan was blunt when explaining the reasons for his move from Sunderland.
The money, he said, was "too good to refuse". Sunderland's chairman at the time of the loan move, Niall Quinn, offered similar sentiments. The fee was unheard of for a player moving on loan and with Gyan set on leaving, the club cut their losses. Further optimism was brought with the belief that, once the deal was made permanent, Sunderland would receive yet another hefty wedge of cash.
That optimism has proven unfounded. As Gyan's value diminished due to what the rest of the footballing world views as a startling lack of ambition – the UAE Pro-League boasts an average attendance of scarcely more than 3,000 spectators – Sunderland picked up a further £4m or so, leaving them short of the £13m they initially spent on the striker.
The recent disclosure that Gyan has failed to keep to his end of the bargain, whereby his loan move was agreed on the condition that he donated £100,000 of his new earnings to Sunderland's Foundation of Light charity, has done little to inflate the standing of a man most Wearsiders would much prefer to forget about. That will prove difficult, for Gyan's pursuit of the high life has plunged his former employers into something of a predicament.
When he signed in September 2010, Gyan completed a three-pronged attack that included Darren Bent and Danny Welbeck. Bent's goalscoring prowess was already renowned, while Welbeck – on loan from Manchester United – offered signs of promise. By the turn of the year Sunderland in the top six. Now, not one of them remains.
Bent, seen by many as unhappy with Gyan stealing his limelight in front of goal, put in a transfer request in mid-January and departed for Aston Villa and higher wages. Thirty-six goals in 63 games and claims he wanted to emulate Kevin Phillips and "become a legend" on Wearside soon counted for nought.
Just as Gyan's initial success had a paradoxical effect for the club in that it triggered Bent's departure, so did Welbeck's own good season in the north-east. Sir Alex Ferguson was so impressed by his youngster's season out on loan that he promptly put him into United's first team. Welbeck is now a full England international, and any chance of him returning to Sunderland has faded.
Martin O'Neill is left presiding over a meagre front line. Nicklas Bendtner joined on loan from Arsenal, but sizeable wage demands meant his stay at Sunderland was never likely to be permanent. Fraizer Campbell turns 25 in September but two lengthy spells on the sidelines have many questioning his abilities at the top level. Ji Dong-Won, last-minute winner against Manchester City aside, is 21 and looks too raw to be relied upon for a full season.
It is upon the youngest of the three, Connor Wickham, that the most pressure is heaped. Signed for £8m from Ipswich Town last year, Wickham has long been lauded as a future England star. Last season he was troubled by injury and, despite impressive showings in pre-season, Sunderland cannot afford to go into the new season expecting a 19-year-old to take them into the top half of the table.
Unsurprisingly, much of O'Neill's summer activity has been focused upon recruiting a striker. Top of the list is Steven Fletcher of Wolves. Twelve goals last term was an impressive tally in a side that were relegated, and O'Neill seems to think Fletcher is the perfect man to latch onto the end of crosses from the likes of James McClean and Sebastian Larsson. However, with Wolves holding out for more money, the move has developed into a saga.
This will be of little comfort on Wearside. The last time Sunderland pursued a striker for so long was two years ago, when Gyan signed on the final day of the transfer window. Just weeks after an impressive showing at the World Cup, fans were delighted with their record signing. Whoever comes through the door this summer, Sunderland supporters will be much more cautious about taking him to their hearts. Chris Weatherspoon