Sports Features of Saturday, 7 August 2010
Signing an injury-plagued player for a major loan fee might not seem like the best use of stretched resources. But, as Mark Douglas reports, John Mensah is worth it.
EVEN with football in the throes of a recession, there are certain transfers worth ignoring the bottom line for. The financial gamble that brings the delicate but brilliant John Mensah back to the Stadium of Light is one of those.
Sunderland are set to pay a seven-figure loan fee for 12 months’ service from the ‘Rock of Gibraltar’ and despite needing to finance a personal physio to nurse a fragile physique that allowed him to start just 14 games last season, they have waived pay-as-you-play clauses to bring him back to Wearside.
With Steve Bruce operating within financial constraints this summer, it is a move that illustrates remarkable loyalty yet seems to make little financial sense. But for his presence, his ability and his influence around the club, it is a deal well worth brokering for the Black Cats.
Mensah will complete the formalities of his move over the weekend having set his heart on a return to Sunderland long before his stellar performances at the World Cup. Out in South Africa his performances against the USA, Germany and Uruguay were of such a high standard that they flushed out serious interest to rival Sunderland’s.
Monaco and Hamburg both made approaches but Mensah, a deeply religious man with a young family that settled well on Wearside, had already decided that he wanted to come back to the Premier League and it would have taken almighty offers from elsewhere to prevent him from returning.
Partly, he was convinced by Bruce’s faith in him. Even though Mensah does not train with the rest of the squad for four days out of five, he is a bubbly, funny character who is well-liked and respected by his team-mates – virtues that the Sunderland boss knows he needs during a long and occasionally gruelling season.
The Academy of Light was one of the first places that Mensah visited after his World Cup heartache against Uruguay. After a brief spell back home in Ghana he returned to Sunderland, now officially a Lyon player, to talk with Bruce. If he had been expecting sympathy for his admittedly horrendous penalty miss against the South Americans, it was in short supply that day. As soon as he poked his head around Bruce’s office door he was subjected to flak about the one-step approach that saw his effort easily saved by Fernando Muslera.
‘But gaffer,’ he retorted. ‘I looked around and no-one else wanted to take one. As captain, it was my duty.’ That approach neatly sums up why Bruce is prepared to go to bat for a player whose signing is definitely a risk.
“He is such a good player and anyone who saw him play for any time at all last season should know why we have got him back,” he said.
“If you look at the games last year he is an exceptional talent. I would rather him around than not have him.
“We now hope he can stay injury free because for me he was the outstanding defender at the World Cup – there weren’t many better and we are a better team with him in it.
“I watched him play loads of times when I was at Wigan and he was playing for Rennes and I would have loved to have signed him but I simply couldn’t afford him. He went for £10million two years ago and signed a five-year deal, that is how good he is. Then he got his injury problems and Lyon signed the big Brazilian Alex so even when he was fit there was no place for him.
“To get someone on his par, someone who is that good, I couldn’t afford it if he didn’t have the fitness problems. But I weighed it up and decided it was worth it.” Despite claims to the contrary, the deal they have settled on after much bartering is initially a season-long loan with an option to turn it into a permanent move if he plays enough games.
In that respect it is virtually identical to the loan that Sunderland brokered last year, when Mensah turned out enough times to trigger the clause but the Black Cats could not justify the £8million fee that was pre-agreed with Lyon.
There is an additional expense – Mensah will be bringing his own personal chiropractor-cum-physio from France who was with him in South Africa. As well as acupuncture and other alternative therapies, Mensah will have a programme that Sunderland hope will help him play more than 20 games without succumbing to the same niggling injuries that blighted him last year.[b] “We will make strides to bring his physio with him. He is a bit more than a physio but whatever he is I hope he helps,” Bruce said.
“He got John through four games in the World Cup, two of which went to extra-time. He must be doing something right because when they scored he sprinted 40 yards across to celebrate! I've never seen him run like that for a long time.
“I’m delighted to have him back. But I’ve already told him he’s not taking any penalties for us next season.”