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SCOTT WILSON COLUMN: Black Cats are at a crossroads
WHEN Ellis Short agreed to fund the £22m purchase of Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson in August, he did so in the belief that he would not be required to make any further investments in January.
The revolving-door days of Roy Keane and Steve Bruce were over. Martin O'Neill would steady the ship and prioritise stability over rash, knee-jerk spending. There'd be an occasional top-class addition every now and then to ensure the squad continued to evolve and improve, but Sunderland's American owner would no longer be forced to write cheque after cheque every time the transfer window reopened.
So much for best-laid plans. Here we are heading towards the turn of the year and for the second season in succession, the Black Cats are at a crossroads.
Last year, Short followed the signpost marked 'Sack your manager'. The same route is available this time around, although for a myriad of reasons, there is much less desire to take it.
The only problem is that the alternative options are not really any more palatable. 'Do nothing and keep your fingers crossed' or 'Spend over the odds on new signings'. Either way, this is not the way anyone envisaged things panning out when Fletcher and Johnson were paraded before the start of the season.
Having already pumped around £150m into Sunderland, it is easy to understand why Short, a businessman with a wide-ranging portfolio, every arm of which could make competing claims for investment, is reluctant to throw yet more money at a seemingly intractable problem.
The club's wage bill is already too big to make any aspiration towards sustainability unrealistic, and in terms of numbers, it cannot be claimed that Sunderland's squad is significantly lighter than that of their rivals, even if it remains unbalanced.
As a result, Short would be perfectly justified in keeping his hands in his pockets next month, even if, as expected, O'Neill comes with a shortlist of potential recruits.
The Northern Irishman, lest we forget, is hailed as one of the greatest man-managers in the game. Shouldn't he be capable of eliciting the best from a squad that swept all before them for a three-month period halfway through last season?
Sadly, there have been no signs of that happening in recent weeks, and in truth, there has been little indication of a marked upturn in form all season. Sunderland have claimed two league victories, both of which were achieved against ten men, and if they lose to a Chelsea side finally showing signs of life under Rafael Benitez tomorrow, they could well find themselves in the bottom three.
Maintaining the status quo is not an option, so unforeseen expenditure is surely the best alternative.
The Black Cats squad is chronically short of creativity at the heart of midfield and could do with another proven striker to support Fletcher's efforts. Fraizer Campbell and Connor Wickham would no doubt claim they are capable of being that striker, but that ship has long since sailed.
A creative midfielder and a top-class striker - good luck with getting those on the cheap next month.
January is a difficult month in which to do business at the best of times, and there is little or no chance of persuading clubs to part with attackers capable of making an instant impression in the Premier League, which is what Sunderland need.
Yet if Short is not prepared to pay a premium in order to bolster his squad, O'Neill will either be forced to muddle through with what he has or recruit sub-standard players who will only cause further problems when they cannot be moved on in the future.
It is hardly an appealing choice, but it is where the Sunderland chief finds himself unless he takes dramatic action for the second year in a row.
Given that the Wearsiders have only won two of their last 22 Premier League matches, it is extraordinary that O'Neill's position has not been called into question from the stands.
There has been booing and the occasional frustrated shout, but nothing that could even remotely be described as an orchestrated campaign to force the manager out.
That attitude is also evident in the boardroom, where O'Neill's tenure is not being challenged despite this season's struggles.
Why? Partly because of a lack of an outstanding replacement, something that was not the case when Steve Bruce was dismissed last December.
Back then, O'Neill was hailed as the saviour in waiting, and while subsequent events have been dispiriting, they have not yet completely sapped the goodwill that accompanied his arrival at the Stadium of Light.
Everyone - board, players, supporters and even the media - wants this to work. Hence the extreme reluctance to even countenance an alternative.
At the moment, though, it isn't working, and that is why Short finds himself compelled to act given the huge financial implications of missing out on next season's lucrative new Premier League television deal. He will surely have to do something next month - the only question is what?