From a fractured club beyond repair to a side battling at the top of the Championship, Sunderland have now recovered from years of poor ownership, suicidal investment and managerial catastrophes that saw them suffer back-to-back relegations from the Premier League in 2017.
Spearheaded by Tony Mowbray, who has developed a habit of winning matches, developing youngsters and an attractive playing style, the Black Cats are now on the right path to becoming a top-flight club, having narrowly missed out on promotion through the play-offs last season.
While Sunderland are pointing in a forward direction these days, they are still haunted by their terrible decision-making towards the latter stages of their Premier League journey, especially in the transfer window.
The Black Cats’ scattergun nature to transfers saw them bring in the likes of Didier Ndong, Jack Rodwell, Papy Djilobodji and Ricky Alvarez, who bled the club dry with their extortionate transfer fees and wages but contributed very little to their plight towards relegation.
What was perhaps more frustrating than the nature of transfer dealings during this period was who the Sunderland hierarchy passed up the chance to sign, only to watch them thrive elsewhere.
Although passing up the chance to sign Ivan Rakitic in 2011 and Toby Alderweireld in 2014 will likely have supporters pulling their hair out, the most infuriating example of a player that got away was Premier League and Champions League-winning defender Virgil van Dijk.
Did Sunderland almost sign Virgil van Dijk?
According to the Daily Mail, Sunderland were eyeing up an £8m move for Celtic defender Virgil van Dijk in the 2015 winter transfer window.
Gus Poyet, their manager at the time, even admitted on the “What the Falk” podcast years later that he was “very, very interested” in landing a deal for the highly-rated 23-year-old. Coincidentally, Poyet also tried to complete a move a few years before when he was at Brighton.
He detailed: “After 20 minutes watching the game with my assistant I knew we had to sign him. It was too easy for him [Van Dijk]. With all respect for all the other players playing in that game, and for the Dutch league, it was like a first-team player playing with under-15s in a training session. It was incredible.
“At that time the price was £3m and Brighton was not able to buy him because our most expensive player was £1.5m.
“The year after we bought Leo Ulloa for £3m but because he was a striker. For a defender? No chance. The following year he goes to Celtic. Then when they said to me about the possibility of getting him, we were very, very interested.”
While the Black Cats showcased their interest, Southampton ultimately landed van Dijk for £13m.
With the Saints later selling the Dutchman for £75m to Liverpool in 2017, not taking a plunge on him is a decision Sunderland will live to regret for eternity, as the player that slipped through their grasp went on to become one of the best centre backs to grace the beautiful game, with Michael Owen lauding him as such in 2022.
What has Van Dijk gone on to achieve?
The defensive “monster”, as described by Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville, has gone on to become a colossus at the back for Liverpool, orchestrating them through a trophy-laden spell as the Reds scooped the Champions League in 2019 and the Premier League in 2020.
While he helped transform Jurgen Klopp’s side into a trophy-winning machine, he was recognised for his magnificent defensive displays by being crowned the Players’ Player of the Year and the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year in 2019.
Van Dijk, simply put, is a generational defender, and he has established that tag with his domineering performances, drawing praise from one of the best strikers in the world, Harry Kane, during a question-and-answer session with Prime Video Sport in 2022.
The Englishman said: “Obviously, [Virgil] Van Dijk is a fantastic defender,” Kane said. “He’s been consistent now for Liverpool over many years and he won the Premier League and won the Champions League.
“So, he’s a tough defender, and he’s doing great this year after his injury last year.”
Kane met a multitude of stand-out centre backs across his career when he was at Tottenham, including John Terry, Vincent Kompany and Ruben Dias, but for the Bayern Munich striker, van Dijk tops them all.
At 32-years-old, the impact that the Dutchman has on Liverpool is immeasurable and as seen when he is absent from the starting XI – against Wolves on Saturday lunchtime during a 3-1 win – their defence looks jaded and disorganised.
Van Dijk’s presence on the Reds back line is huge, but so is his presence among the elite defenders in world football, ranking in the top 12% for aerials won, top 10% for pass completion and top 9% for non-penalty xG, emphasis his importance in both boxes when compared against players positionally similar to him across Europe’s top five leagues, as per FBref.
Given what the £29m-rated titan has gone on to achieve in his career, Sunderland supporters will be tearing their hair out at what could have been.