When Jeremain Lens signed from Dynamo Kiev in 2015, he sat down for the customary first interview with the club website. It was clear almost immediately that we had signed a player with supreme confidence in his own ability. Answering questions about himself and his new club, the thing that I found the most refreshing and exciting about Lens was how focused he seemed, particularly when he stated plainly that he is used to winning games and that he hasn’t come here to lose. A player who went in to each game expecting to win could be an infectious influence in a dressing room so accustomed to defeat.
Two years later and it’s fair to say he has not had much of an impact on Wearside, though how much of this is down to him is up for debate. Loaned out last season by David Moyes, despite starting the season strongly, this ridiculous decision was made all the more baffling by the praise Moyes expressed towards the apathetic, cowardly and hopelessly ineffective Adnan Januzaj.
At the beginning of last season and during this pre-season, Lens has been the stand out performer and has returned in excellent mental and physical condition on both occasions. However, this appears to not be enough to convince some fans, with many keen to see the back of him. Though Lens’ personality does not sit well with Sunderland fans who are understandably weary of inflated egos, he has shown the desire, fitness and mental strength to impose his talents on games and make a key impact. During last season, Lens enjoyed an excellent spell on loan with Fenerbahce, scoring five goals and assisting seventeen in all competitions. Despite this impressive return, he did not endear himself to Sunderland fans during his time away.
During last season, when asked about his situation and whether he would be open to a permanent move to Turkey, Lens said:
I would like to stay for many years at Fenerbahce but it's not just for me to look at. I do not want to talk about my contract, but many things will be easier if Sunderland drop down. Let's wait and see.
This comment quite rightly earned the scorn of then manager David Moyes and most of the Sunderland faithful. It was an unacceptable thing for him to say, as he was still our player and a certain degree of respect should be afforded to your employers, whatever the situation. Though he did not state outright that he hoped we go down, his assessment of the situation implied it heavily.
While I cannot and do not wish to defend these comments, they are clearly intended to improve Lens’ negotiating position come the end of the season. Lens is obviously not committed to the success of Sunderland AFC above everything else. Jeremain Lens is committed to himself first and foremost, as most players are in this era of football. Given our recent history of signing players with little hunger to achieve future success for the club or themselves, we are now more inclined to purchase players who - first and foremost - will work hard for the club.
However, desire to achieve personal glory is not the worst quality for a player to have. Though Lens possesses ability in abundance, I do not for one moment believe that he lacks drive or work ethic. It is merely that this drive comes from a sense of ego rather than a commitment to a team or club. Despite the selfish nature of his motivation, a player of his ability can only be a positive to us as he appears to be the kind of player who always wants to play well, whatever the circumstance.
I want to see exciting players with ability at Sunderland and I honestly believe that Jeremain Lens would do more good than harm. While he may not love Sunderland, he has never seemed to be unwilling to apply himself in games. Though he and his agent may use the press to further their own ends, this is something common when dealing with talented players nowadays. If we want to get back to the Premier League and stay there, we are going to have to get better at encountering it as a club and a fan base, however unpleasant it may be.
Barely a day goes by now when a player or their agent are not quoted angling for a move or creating uncertainty to illicit a new and improved contract. Football is a business and the power is all in the players hands. We cannot confront this culture on our own and if we try to we will likely end up with players who are quiet in the press, and quiet on the pitch where it counts.
A player truly committed and affectionate towards their club is an appealing thing for a fan to see and can make a player of limited ability a legend. However, I do not think we should be expecting players to love our club and I have reached the stage where I would no longer believe them even if they said they did. We can and should ask for players to have an impact on games for the duration of their stay and if they do that, then we should be satisfied. Though they must of course conduct themselves properly off the pitch and keep themselves mentally and physically focused on their performances for Sunderland.
If you are waiting for Jeremain Lens to close down defenders, chase and tackle like Kevin Ball or Lee Cattermole, then yes you will be disappointed. But the games where I have watched Lens play for us, he has more often than not been heavily involved, particularly when played in a central role. He works hard to impose his talents on the game and while this may not involve full blooded tackles, I have always noticed Lens seeking the ball and using it in ways none of our other players could hope to.
Against Swansea in the league and Arsenal in the FA Cup the season before last, Lens was our stand out player, pulling the strings in a central role and demonstrating his abundance of talent. The fact that we have not yet found a way to use him effectively is a travesty, though Lens is not alone in the list of quality players we have cast aside due to managerial and tactical failings rather than any lack of fight or drive on his part. The club and the managers must take their fair share of blame for not being able to find a system to accommodate players of his calibre, while still inexplicably selecting worse players with even more questionable attitudes.
I suppose it all depends on what you demand from a Sunderland player in this footballing age of business and individualism. Is it sufficient for a player to perform on the pitch? Or do we need a personality that communicates a deeper connection off the pitch, even if it is likely fabricated? The last few years supporting Sunderland have made me a cynic, so I struggle to believe those who profess a more profound attachment anyway. With Lens, we at least know where we stand. He is motivated by his own success, but that is still a form of motivation that we could have used.
With reports circling that an agreement has now been reached with Besiktas following an unsuccessful bid late last week, Lens is almost certain to move on and few will be truly sorry to see him go. I won’t be sorry to see Lens the personality leave, as he has never demonstrated a deeper connection or appreciation for what this club is about. Lens the player, however, is a completely different matter and though he has not been an instrumental part of our team, I find myself thinking about what could have been. Like it or not, Lens’ ability was a big loss last season and I fear his absence may be even more keenly felt in the season to come.