Balancing the books a high-wire act for Sunderland

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The Independent Football

On Thursday the football world was mourning the loss of another of its old-time greats. Trevor Ford, holder of the Welsh international goalscoring record before the advent of Ian Rush, died in his native Swansea at the age of 79. He was a firebrand of a centre-forward who caused a sensation in 1950 when he moved from Aston Villa to Sunderland.

The transfer fee was £30,000, a British record, and both Ford and Sunderland were punished when it came to light that the player had received more than the £10 permissible as a signing-on fee. He was forced to play in Holland for three years, for PSV Eindhoven, until a Football League ban was lifted.

Ford's passing brought with it a reminder on Wearside that Sunderland were once known as "the Bank of England club". These days they are fighting to avoid becoming a Bankrupt of England club. The summer transfer window opens today, and Ford's former employers will be looking through it with a particularly pained expression.

Sunderland need customers to buy their cut-price goods if they are to avert the kind of monetary meltdown that has afflicted the Premiership drop-outs who have gone before them. Of the six clubs relegated in 2001 and 2002 (Bradford, Coventry, Watford, Derby, Leicester and Ipswich), three have spent time in administration and all have suffered financial problems.

Sunderland are already £26m in debt and have taken steps to soften the blow of losing almost as much in revenue from their crash landing into the Nationwide League. They are in the process of shedding 83 staff, among them chief executive Hugh Roberts and director of football operations Mark Blackbourne, both directors. They have also agreed temporary wage cuts with contracted players they are hoping to sell - such as Kevin Phillips, Thomas Sorensen and Gavin McCann.

The amounts are due to be reimbursed from future transfer fees received but, in the meantime, will save Sunderland some £100,000 a month. "We've had to face the reality of being a Division One side next season," Bob Murray, the Sunderland chairman, said.

Despite such prudent financial pruning, the harsh reality is that Sunderland are still desperate to reduce losses via the transfer window. They are still paying off the contracts of two former managers and a managerial assistant - Peter Reid, Howard Wilkinson and Steve Cotterill - and still owe money on some of the transfer-market gambles that backfired in a season they finished with a losing run of 15 matches and a record low Premiership points-tally of 19.

It is understood that they are still in debt to Rangers for half of the club-record £6.75m sum they agreed to pay for Tore Andre Flo last August. The signing of the Norwegian was Reid's last throw of the dice, and it has left Sunderland in such dire straits they are anxious to cut their losses by selling Flo at less than half-price. As well as clearing the debt owed for him, they can ill afford to pay his £42,000-a-week wage.

Flo was such a spectacular flop he failed to score in the last five months of the season, and contributed just four Premiership goals in total. Fortunately for him, and for Sunderland, though, his reputation remains intact in Spain - three years on from his two-goal Champions' League semi-final appearance against Barcelona. Real Betis have shown an interest. Sunderland would accept a fee in the region of £3m, but whether they will get anything like it remains to be seen.

It remains highly doubtful, too, if the extent of the initial interest in Phillips is anything to go by. Middlesbrough and Tottenham are understood to have tabled bids of £1.5m and £1.75m respectively - a long way short of the £4m Sunderland have been banking on getting, even in such a depressed market. They want the same amount for Sorensen and something similar for McCann, too, all of which is likely to add up to a summer of poker playing for the Sunderland board - and to a frustrating time for Mick McCarthy.

Three months into his job as manager, McCarthy is a long way from settling the composition of the squad with which he will be attempting to mount a promotion challenge in August. He needs to make some sales before he can even look to take on the wages of the freed players he has on his provisional wanted list: the likes of Steve Davis, Gary Breen, Colin Cooper and Tony Vidmar. "There's a big grey area at the moment," McCarthy's assistant, Ian Evans, said. "We don't know which players will be here next season and who we will have managed to introduce to the club. It is a source of major frustration." It must be a major frustration for the players, too, though they could always release some of it by following Trevor Ford's lead. He used to spend his summers playing cricket. He was a substitute fielder for Glamorgan in 1968 when Garfield Sobers struck his six sixes at the St Helen's ground in Swansea.