Captain's Blog: Striker Search To Focus On The Pragmatic, Not The Prolific
With the season finished, it seems there is just one topic dominating conversation amongst Sunderland fans - which striker should the club be targeting to fill the void left by the departures of Asamoah Gyan and Nicklas Bentner.
In fact, some may argue that the club have never really managed to replace Darren Bent. Certainly, if you are talking about replacing the number of goals he singularly brought to the side, then it would be an assertion with which it is difficult to argue.
It seems that that ever since Darren Bent unceremoniously packed his bags and decamped to (what my imagination likes to tell me) a damp and flea-ridden Birmingham hotel that befits his general villainy, Sunderland fans have been dreaming of that almost fabled '20-goal striker' into whose basket we can happily deposit all the eggs containing our hopes and dreams.
It's a nice story, and there is some comfort to be found in having that iconic goalscorer to call upon. But insisting upon Darren Bent's goalscoring exploits being the standard against which all striker targets will be judged would appear to be little more than an exercise in futility.
That isn't to say that there is anything wrong with setting lofty goals, of course. No one would be happier than me if Sunderland could pull another scoring sensation out of the bag to lead the line. It should neither be expected nor demanded, however.
In the last 10 years, Bent is one of only five players to break the 20-goal barrier in a Premier League season whilst not playing for a side who finished in a Champions league position, and one of the other four was Alan Shearer. Strikers of that quality are tough enough to find for the very top clubs in the land, let alone the mid-table ones.
It is admittedly difficult to predict what lies in store for Sunderland this summer. Naturally, it is largely based on guesswork. Clues can be found by examining his time at Aston Villa, though. The projects were comparable - to lift an underachieving big club into the upper echelons of the Premier League without Chelsea or Manchester City style spending.
Consider the fact that as manager of Aston Villa, he never really sought to channel Randy Lerner's generous backing into bringing a top penalty box predator to the club. Meanwhile, one of his very first acts at Villa Park was to sanction Kevin Phillips' move to WBA.
Additionally, Martin O'Neill has already laid out a tantalizing indication as to what to expect from his summer striker search. Back in December and whilst purring over the performance of Stephane Sessegnon at Loftus Road, he offered up a definition of what he sees as centre forward play; "Get it, hold it, and play it".
Obviously, the ability to put the ball in the net with a semblance of efficiency will also factor in the decision, but with O'Neill you get the distinct feeling that any forward that arrives at the Stadium of Light this summer will be a team player first and a goalscorer second.
For all Darren Bent's personal achievements at Sunderland, it should be noted that the club failed to finish any higher in the league table with him banging in 24 goals that it did last season without a single player notching double figures. The club's fortunes became intrinsically connected to the fortunes, form, and fitness of one player, and it didn't do it any good at all.
You sense that O'Neill will be looking to be more pragmatic that that. He'll be looking to build a system in which the quality of the individual is the bonus rather than the basis, led by a forward who is more comfortable with his back to goal than he is whilst baring down on it.
Is that the glamorous marquis figure who is likely to get us off our seats? No. But such a figure would certainly bring the best out of players such as James McClean, Stephane Sessegnon, and other attack minded exciting players that have been linked to the club so far this summer such as Wilfried Zaha, Junior Hoilett, Victor Moses, and Aiden McGeady, by allowing them to isolate defenders with the ball at their feet and space to attack. That was very much his Aston Villa model.
I could be wrong. It certainly wouldn't be the first time. But all the indications point towards a Sunderland summer striker search that focuses on the pragmatic rather than the prolific, although O'Neill's track record suggests the team as a whole will be considerably stronger for it.