If Sunderland are more than a project club where’s the proven centre-forward?

<span>Photograph: Joe Toth/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Joe Toth/Shutterstock

A talk-in between the Sunderland club hierarchy and members of the Red and White Army Supporters’ Trust in the newly refurbished Montgomery Suite at the Stadium of Light. Fans could ask questions by writing them on a slip of paper, adding their name and handing them to volunteers. Frankie, the compere, took one from the pile. It was for Kristjaan Speakman, Sunderland’s sporting director.

“Why,” it asked, “have we not got a proven centre-forward?” Speakman, half-joking, sighed, looked visibly deflated. It’s a question he’s been asked probably hundreds of times this year. There was no name on the slip of paper. Looking across the audience, he asked who had written the question, wanting to address them directly. One hand went up. Then another. Then another and another. Soon, as the spirit of Spartacus took hold, everybody in the room had their hand in the air.

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The mood was light-hearted. Speakman laughed. He talked about how traditional centre‑forwards don’t really exist in the same way and how they were looking for a striker but stressed that the club wouldn’t bring in anybody who did not satisfy the metrics they were looking for. Youth was essential. And to an extent that was reasonable enough: the example of Will Grigg (signed for a League One record £3m fee; scored five goals in 47 starts) stands as a warning of what can happen when a club act in desperation.

Yet the absence of a centre‑forward is an obvious problem and one that will have to be tackled by whoever replaces Tony Mowbray, who was sacked on Monday. With candidates still being interviewed, the head of individual player development, Mike Dodds, will take charge of Saturday’s game against West Brom. Since the 4-0 defeat by Middlesbrough, which was shaped by Dan Neil’s dismissal shortly before half-time, Sunderland have won two of eight games. In the other six, they’ve had, excluding penalties, 66 shots and scored only twice. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suggest that had, say, Ross Stewart still been at the club and fit, he might have converted rather more than that.

That’s not to say that it was wrong to sell Stewart, who moved to Southampton in the summer for £8m. He was in the final year of his contract, has still managed only 19 minutes since an achilles injury in January, and missed a large part of the first half of last season with a thigh problem. The mistake, rather, was not to replace him. Even before Stewart’s injury, Sunderland were short on striking options, particularly after Ellis Sims had been recalled from loan by Everton, and they were fortunate Amad Diallo, drifting from deep, took up the slack with 13 goals.

Diallo, though, returned to Manchester United at the end of the season, leaving Sunderland with four new signings up front: a 20-year-old loanee from Chelsea, Mason Burstow; the Ukrainian 25-year-old Nazariy Rusyn, who has been restricted by injury; the Portuguese 20-year-old Luis Semedo; and the Spanish 18-year‑old Eliezer Mayenda. None of them have yet scored.

Sunderland have 29 goals in 19 games this season and their goal difference of +7 is the fifth-best in the division. If there’s space, Jack Clarke, Jobe Bellingham and Patrick Roberts will exploit it; they put five past Southampton and have scored three on five other occasions. But they can struggle to break down sides who sit deep and , given how Roberts and Clarke cut infield, they can get bogged down in central areas, particularly if the full-backs fail to get forward, as has been the case recently. What they lack is somebody to latch on to half-chances in a crowded box, to turn pressure into goals.

The want of a centre-forward is symptomatic of a wider issue. The owner, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, and Speakman have their model and the squad it has produced is young and exciting, but also perhaps lacking in edge. With Danny Batth sold and Corry Evans out after knee surgery, there is a lack of experience; Luke O’Nien was the only player over 24 who started Saturday’s draw at Millwall, while seven outfielders were 22 or under. Daniel Ballard is the only outfielder in the squad over 6ft, leaving Sunderland perpetually at risk from set plays.

Alex Neil departed for Stoke last season, seemingly in part because of his frustration over recruitment, and there have been rumours since the end of last season of disagreement over policy between Mowbray and Speakman. Perhaps Will Still, at 31, or Kim Hellberg, at 35, or Julien Sablé, at 43, will chafe less at the restrictions of the recruitment policy, but at some point soon fundamental questions will have to be answered: are Sunderland a quixotic project, creating something at times beautiful but hopelessly fragile (and then presumably selling on improved young talent), or is there a real will for promotion? And if the latter, is that possible on no more than youth and potential?