This summer has been the fifth consecutive transfer window when I have been half expecting, and fully dreading, the news that broke in recent days; that we have sold Stephane Sessegnon. Finally, and perhaps inevitably given the extent of changes that have been made this summer, it happened. Regardless of what else has (or hasn’t) happened this summer, in my view it is really sad – and bad – news for the club, the team, and most of all, its supporters.
It has become, in recent years, a ritual for many fans to hit Youtube for videos on potential new signings of which we have little knowledge, when they were linked with the club. I’m sure you’ve seen them too, those compilation videos of skills of individual players with garish introduction screens in pigeon English, accompanied by pretty dismal rap music. From the moment I watched Sessegnon’s videos from his time at PSG, it was clear that he was a special talent, from his dazzling performances for PSG, to the funny ones, such as the one where he injures a player in a pre-season without touching him because he has tied him up in knots when running at him with the ball.
So it proved – here was an exceptional talent, from the off. He joined at a strange time – we were 6th in the league when he joined, but the man around whose goals we had built the team, Darren Bent, had made his foolish choice to join Aston Villa, and we were about to go on one of those runs lasting months without a win - which Steve Bruce specialised in. What looked like an exciting African base to the team never quite developed – with Mensah fragile through injury, Muntari disinterested, and Gyan looking for a lucrative way out. This moment, more than any other in the last ten years, was our false dawn. It was also the moment when, first by necessity with Gyan injured, and then out of choice, managers would, mystifyingly, come to see Sessegnon as a striker.
I don’t think that anyone disputes Sessegnon’s amazing natural footballing talents, though I do think that we took that far too much for granted. Of how many Sunderland players in your lifetime can we honestly use the phrase ‘amazing natural football talent’?
There are a few myths around Sessegnon that irk me, though. One is that he ‘doesn’t fit’ into a system that we would want to play. Rubbish. How many players have we had who have been played, in the course of two years, in as many positions as Sessegnon – left wing, right wing, second striker, attacking midfielder, and lone striker? Perhaps the ‘problem’ for too much of his time here was that we failed to capitalise on what he offered the team by not playing him in the position to which he was best suited – an advanced playmaker, a Number 10, a mezz’ala, call it what you like. Too often we seemed stuck in the dark ages when it came to understanding what Sessegnon could offer us in that position. Worryingly, we now seem to be trying to force everyone into a 4-2-4 system with a weak central midfield, which will be outnumbered week in, week out.
Another fatuous myth about Sessegnon is that he had ‘no end product’. Really? Take the 2011-12 season when he was easily our player of the year, the season O’Neill replaced Bruce, and he played some of his best football for us – most of it in that Number 10 position. 7 goals (one behind the top scorer), 9 assists (nearly double that of the second highest), and an average of 2 chances created a game (again, comfortably more than anyone else in the team). No end product? You must be joking.
Yet to reduce Sessegnon’s contribution to statistics is to miss the point. The point, for me, is that I loved watching him play football. Never knowing what he would do next, always knowing that it was likely to be something that no-one else in our team could do. He made football fun to watch. At a time when the Premiership is a bore, and our team is lacklustre, lurching from one relegation battle to another, that made him worth his weight in gold in my view.
A criticism with more substance is that he wasn’t consistent enough. That’s true, though I don’t think we always helped by being unsure how to use him best. However, let’s be realistic: a player with that level of natural talent, who was able to produce his best form each week, would be a deadline day signing for a Champions League side, or even standing on a podium at the Bernabeu - rather than playing at the Stadium of Light.
Now, he has moved on, a victim of our prevailing focus on cutting costs instead of building a team, or entertaining the fans. He hasn’t even been sold for a good price – he has been sold for a virtually identical sum of money to that which we have spent on English midfield plodders like Lee Cattermole, Craig Gardner, and Kieran Richardson in recent years. To add insult to injury, Paolo Di Canio insisted that we turn down an offer of nearly as much money for Ji Dong-Won.
Sessegnon hasn’t been replaced, of course, and the all important money saved in wages has been spent on an injured 31 year old full back, and a loan signing from Liverpool reserves who if he is successful will leave at the end of the season. Both have been failures, to date, in the Premiership. We are far weaker for this decision. Perhaps worse than that, we are far more boring. Out of the hundreds of players who have gone out of our revolving door in recent years, only Julio Arca and Steed Malbranque have lit up the Stadium of Light with their footballing ability. Like Malbranque, Sessegnon was underappreciated at the point during which we made the mistaken decision to sell him, and will leave a significant hole in our side for years to come.