GLUED to a mobile phone, the lesser-spotted Lee Congerton tended to be glimpsed at the back of a stand or in the corners of a corridor.

Like many recruitment men, Congerton’s actions were confined to the outer regions of the public eye. He was a man in the shadows; as much to supporters as he was to those of us on the Sunderland press beat.

Some of that was not his fault. Other than two handpicked interviews at the start of his reign and the token club media propaganda, Congerton was never allowed to explain his philosophy, transfer strategy or spending restrictions openly. For an inexplicable reason, Sunderland wanted to keep their sporting director locked away.

Loading article content

Perhaps it was because the club’s account sheet showed an annual £15-20million mark in the red. Maybe then chief executive Margaret Byrne just wanted to keep the club in lockdown as much as possible, as it scraped from one relegation battle and off-the-field trauma to the next.

But after a couple of off-the-record chats with Congerton and speaking to those who did have more sustained dealings with him, it was equally difficult to deduce whether he was the solution or another part of the problem at Sunderland.

On the one hand, the man now in charge of recruitment at Celtic was utterly hamstrung by Sunderland’s financial restrictions.

To this day, Sunderland are shelling out tens of millions in instalments to players who have long left the Stadium of Light. Congerton inherited much of that bad debt.

Operating on a budget, Congerton faced an impossible task of bringing in both quality AND quantity, who could immediately make an impression.

Months before he was placed on gardening leave in December 2015, whispers circulated that Congerton had become so disillusioned with the limitations that he was ready to walk away.

In a bid to overcome the financial hurdles, Congerton even had to resort to a DFS buy now, pay later, recruitment drive.

Both Younes Kaboul and Fabio Borini were signed in the summer of 2015 without a penny of down payment. The first instalments to Spurs and Liverpool, respectively, didn’t arrive until 12 months later.

To his credit, Congerton proved it was possible to bring in hugely successful signings without having to break the bank.

Jermain Defoe - 25 Premier League goals and counting over the last 14 months - came in a straight swap deal for the appalling Jozy Altidore. Midfielder Yann M’Vila arrived with a chequered past on a season-long loan from Russian club Rubin Kazan, yet he was utterly immense in another Sunderland Houdini act last season. Staggeringly, the Black Cats were paying just £20,000-odd a week towards his £100,000-plus wages with his parent club.

A year before Virgil van Dijk left Celtic to join Southampton, Congerton was submitting a bid for the centre-half too. Sunderland were far from alone in tracking the Dutchman, yet he clearly recognised the talent there.

But for all the success stories, there were those incoming players that still prompt 3am cold sweats.

Celtic acquisition Adam Matthews played 94 minutes in a Sunderland shirt before being deemed not good enough and packed out on loan to the Championship. On the evidence of his displays in friendlies and Under-21 encounters, it was an understandable snap judgement.

Worst of all, was the £12m acquisition of Jack Rodwell. This wasn’t the player who burst into the limelight at Everton. It was a timid, confidence-drained crock. Rodwell’s run of 39 Premier League starts without a win only came to an end last month. It’s a harrowing statistic.

That outlay on Rodwell left Sunderland with insufficient cash in the bank to complete a virtually sealed £5.5m deal for Marcos Alonso. If only the Spaniard had made something of his career subsequently...

Ultimately, it wasn’t signings but the arrival of an old-fashioned, traditional manager in Sam Allardyce which brought the axe down on Congerton’s reign.

But while Allardyce was never going to tolerate working under a director of football model, Gus Poyet had faced little choice, and it never sat well with the Uruguayan.

The tension between Poyet and Congerton was palpable. There were regular snide remarks made in public by the Uruguayan about those players recruited by Congerton. The calibre and time it took for signings to be made, grated on Poyet. No club is going to be successful with such a relationship in the upper echelons.

Congerton’s affinity with Poyet’s short-term successor Dick Advocaat was far more positive, but even then, when the ex-Rangers boss asked for a powerful centre-forward in the summer of 2015, he got a petulant, flaky Borini in return.

At least, there should be a harmonious relationship with Brendan Rodgers. The pair know each other well from their formative years at Chelsea and the ex-Liverpool boss was a target for Sunderland prior to the appointment of Allardyce in October 2015.

Perhaps only a definitive judgement can be made on Congerton when his time at Celtic eventually comes to a conclusion.

There will be no mitigation over having to gamble on players at a relegation-threatened club. There shouldn’t be fall-outs with the manager either.

Ultimately, whether the Congerton recruits make the grade or not at Celtic is going to cement his reputation.

Chris Young was the Sunderland Echo’s chief football reporter between 2011 and 2016.