There was skepticism about the $20.4 million Sunderland paid to buy Asamoah Gyan from the French club Rennes. That he is a talented player seems self-evident -- although that wasn't the case not so long ago -- but in today's depressed market, it seemed a lot of money for a player who hasn't even played in the Europa League, never mind the Champions League. If he carries on as he did in Saturday's debut, though, scoring with a controlled volley in a 1-1 draw with Wigan and demonstrating a technical excellence that would seem to undermine accusations of rawness, the doubts will soon seem as misplaced as those that surrounded Chelsea's signing of Frank Lampard.
Nonetheless, the fee is eye-catching. Sunderland was known as the Bank of England Club in the 1950s for its attempts to buy success, but in the last half-century it's never been a big spender. That said, suggestions it "broke the bank" -- as the Guardian headline had it -- to sign the Ghana forward are misplaced.
Sunderland last summer sold Kenwyne Jones for $12.3 million, Lorik Cana for $7.7 million and Martyn Waghorn for $4.6 million. It brought in Marcos Angeleri for $3.2 million and Titus Bramble for $1.5 million, picked up Cristian Riveros on a free transfer and got John Mensah, Nedum Onuoha, Danny Welbeck and Ahmed El Mohammady on loan. Add in the Gyan fee, and the club's net spend this summer was roughly $500,000. Should it, though, have been even less than that?
As British teams have become smarter in their use of statistical analysis -- the Moneyball effect -- a basic rule has emerged: Never sign a player on the back of a major tournament. This is the Phil Babb Doctrine. For years, most people had regarded Babb as a decent center back, quick but nothing special, but then he had a superb World Cup with the Republic of Ireland in 1994, and suddenly began to be hailed as the new Franco Baresi. Liverpool promptly broke the British transfer record for a defender to sign him from Coventry for $5.5 million, after which he returned to his previous unspectacular form.
The problem with World Cups is that they are short and overhyped. Even the winners play only seven games. Fabio Capello has found himself being portrayed as a donkey on the back page of Britain's best-selling daily after a supposedly disastrous time in South Africa. It certainly felt frustrating, because so much emphasis is placed on that one month, but looked at coldly, England lost only one game at the World Cup, a match in which it was denied a legitimate equalizer that might have radically shifted the momentum of the play. It would be wrong to pretend that England's World Cup was anything other than dire, but not as wrong as it is to ridicule a manager with an almost unparalleled record of success over two decades on the evidence of four matches.
It took Liverpool time to learn its lesson. After the World Cup in 2002, when Senegal impressed on its way to the quarterfinal, Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier signed El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao for a total of $23 million. The Diouf deal, in fairness, had been in progress before the tournament, but the fact that others had been alerted to his talents by the World Cup hype almost certainly inflated his price. The two performed so badly that Jamie Carragher recently described them as the worst players he had played with at Liverpool.
Sunderland manager Steve Bruce insists he had been tracking Gyan for more than a year before the World Cup, and given his previous success in signing players from places British scouts often ignore, there is no reason to disbelieve him. It does raise the question, though, of why he waited until after the World Cup, when Gyan presumably would have been much cheaper at the start of the transfer window.
It is not just the timing of the signing that raises the specter of Diouf. He, like Gyan, excelled in a national side that used him as a lone front-runner, and in which he was the obvious leader. Diouf, it seems, struggled to adapt when he was simply one among many, and was found wanting both technically and in terms of his attitude (although it should be remembered that his first season at Anfield was disrupted by regular trips back to Senegal to visit his ailing father).
First impressions suggest Gyan is rather more grounded. He describes himself as "a funny guy," and at the World Cup, Ghana's players seemed to agree. His first news conference at Sunderland similarly highlighted his comic timing and general joie de vivre. He may be relaxed off the pitch, but on it he seems tireless, the model of the modern all-around center forward -- somebody who fulfills both functions of the classical strike partnership, capable of holding the ball up, winning headers, working across the pitch and getting into goal-scoring positions.
Gyan has gone through his difficult spells, though, and that suggests he may have the strength of mind to cope with the increased physical attention he is sure to receive in the Premier League. He had had a good World Cup in 2006, but by the time Ghana hosted the Cup of Nations two years later, Gyan was misfiring, and after missing a series of chances in the opening game against Guinea, he was so derided he walked out on the squad. Only the intervention of Michael Essien persuaded him to return, and since then his redemption has been remarkable.
That psychological toughness was evident again at the World Cup when, having missed the last-minute penalty against Uruguay, he took Ghana's first penalty in the shootout and scored emphatically. Brian Clough always said the most important attribute in any player was "moral courage." Here it was in abundance.
Gyan effectively replaces Kenwyne Jones in the Sunderland squad, and will need to form an effective partnership with Darren Bent. Although both were on the pitch in the second half on Saturday, the draw against Wigan offered few clues as to how they will work together, because with Sunderland down to 10 men after the sending-off of Lee Cattermole, Bent played much deeper than usual. Gyan's capacity to operate as a lone front man, of course, gives Sunderland additional options.
Logically, they should work as a duo, with Gyan winning aerial balls, as Jones used to, and Bent taking the scoring burden. The latter could be critical given Gyan's comparatively poor goals record; only once has he scored more than 10 league goals in a season. Gyan is more mobile than Jones, which gives the partnership greater potential, but only if they are able to coordinate their runs so as not to end up either too close to each other or too far apart.
That will take time, but the very early signs for Gyan are promising.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.