Sunderland have been one of the most active Premier League sides in the embryonic stage of the transfer window, selling midfielder Jordan Henderson to Liverpool and bringing in strikers Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-won, midfielders Sebastian Larsson and Craig Gardner and goalkeeper Keiren Westwood. The five additions each further manager Steve Bruce’s record of calculated signings that often exploit lesser-watched corners of the market.
From his days as manager of Birmingham City, Bruce has developed a history of snapping up players with small reputations but big potential. It was in the second city that Bruce first got hold of Wilson Palacios, eventually taking the midfielder with him to Wigan Athletic, before selling the Honduras international to Tottenham Hotspur for a substantial profit. Palacios was joined at Wigan by the likes of Maynor Figueroa, Hugo Rodellega and Antonio Valencia as Bruce built up a side rife with talent from South and Central America.
The former Manchester United captain did not limit himself to the Americas, however – Egyptian Amr Zaki was one of Bruce’s most successful signings, for a short time at least, as the on-loan forward enjoyed a storming first half of the 2008-09 season. Bruce has stayed in North Africa since switching to Sunderland, bringing Ahmed Elmohamady to the Stadium of Light on loan last summer and making the move permanent this year. By scouring the globe for undiscovered gems, Bruce has displayed an ingenuity sometimes lacking in English clubs’ scouting systems and, although he has made his share of mistakes too, possibly both saved and made his clubs millions of pounds in transfer fees in the process.
The purchase of Dong-won and the willingness to dip into the Championship for Westwood and Wickham are further evidence of Bruce’s awareness and eye for the future. Westwood is the joint-oldest of the new quintet at 26, the same age as Larsson, but still relatively young for a goalkeeper, while 18-year-old Wickham appears to have all the tools needed to be a good Premier League player in the short-term and an England centre-forward of the future, reflected by the £8m fee and add-on clauses. Wickham joins a squad desperate for goals, having struggled to replace Darren Bent once the England striker moved to Aston Villa in January, with Frazier Campbell and Asamoah Gyan senior strikers available to Bruce before the arrivals of Wickham and Dong-won. DJ Campbell, David N’Gog, Peter Crouch, Shane Long and Jay Bothroyd all also came under Bruce’s consideration but with two new strikers to join the speedy Campbell and the tricky Gyan, Sunderland’s forward line for the forthcoming season is likely complete, although Gyan has been attracting interest from Tottenham Hotspur after an impressive debut Premier League season.
In midfield, the hole left by Henderson’s move to Liverpool has been filled by both Gardner and Larsson, each capable of playing centrally or on the right, just as the departed England international. Larsson also offers Bruce versatility, comfortable as he is at right-back too, while Bruce knows the Swede well having signed him for Birmingham in August 2006. Larsson’s former Blues teammate Gardner, meanwhile, possesses a lethal shot from distance and ended the 2010-11 season as Birmingham’s highest goal scorer with 10 strikes in all competitions, although that may say more about the relegated side’s lack of firepower than anything else. Reaching double figures for a midfielder is always commendable, however, and Gardner will boost the Black Cats’ attack almost as much as the pair of new strikers if he keeps up that form. Indeed, the 10 goals Gardner scored for Birmingham last season would have been enough to make him Sunderland’s third-highest scorer behind Gyan and Bent, the latter remaining as Sunderland’s top scorer for last season despite leaving half way through.
Having concluded the bulk of their transfer business early, not just the half-dozen incomings but the departure of Henderson, allowing the midfielder to leave early, avoiding an unseemly protracted transfer and getting a substantial sum for the player, Sunderland can look forward to a relatively serene summer preparing for the Premier League. There are still positions to be filled – the end of Nedum Onuoha’s loan from Manchester City leaves a question mark at right-back – and the whispers about further moves in either direction will not go away, particularly the Manchester United trio of Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Darron Gibson, but the combination of Bruce’s wide-ranging view of the transfer market and the money to match has given the Mackems a solid base to progress when the new season gets underway.
Ahmed Elmohamady DEF – ENNPI, £2m
Sebastian Larsson MID – Birmingham City, free
Craig Gardner MID – Birmingham City, £6m
Ji Dong-won FWD – Chunam Dragons, undisclosed
Connor Wickham FWD – Ipswich Town, £8m
Jordan Henderson MID – Liverpool, undisclosed
Bolo Zenden MID – free
Cristian Riveros MID – Kayserispor, loan
John O’Shea DEF – Manchester United
Wes Brown DEF – Manchester United
Scott Dann DEF – Birmingham City
Guy Demel DEF – Hamburg
Darron Gibson MID – Manchester United