Earlier this week Simon Grayson vented his frustrations that his senior players were simply too soft and lacked a real sense of fight. In fact, Grayson revealed that they weren’t the ones trying to lift the dressing room - it was a nameless youngster who was dishing out the stick to those around him after a miserable defeat away to Ipswich:
It’s probably summed up when you go into the dressing room and one of the younger lads says, ‘we’re soft as such and such’ - and he’s right.
Sunderland’s senior players simply aren’t stepping up to the mark; they aren’t inspiring those around them, and they aren’t fighting tooth and nail to drag us out of the lurch. Right now we look like a punch-drunk boxer trying to find his feet after a barrage of blows. We need some inspiration to lift the squad, but I don’t think we’ll see it coming from those with the most appearances next to their names.
Instead of hoping his more senior players come good, Grayson needs to try something different - and it looks like he might have a potential answer to his woes closer to home than many might think. It might just be wishful thinking, but the returns of Paddy McNair, Duncan Watmore and Josh Maja might just help get us moving in the right direction.
Looking back to last season, injuries to Paddy McNair and Duncan Watmore didn’t seem particularly concerning. We were gutted that they’d be out for a considerable amount of time, but we had other players who we thought would be able to carry forth the good run of results we had between early November and December.
Simon Grayson would do well to analyze what went wrong last season and compare it with what has been a bright spot this season: the emergence of young players willing to fight and give their all for the badge.
Paddy McNair might not be the most exciting name, but last season he was just beginning to grow into his role in the starting line-up before succumbing to a nasty knee injury - Sunderland’s midfield looked a lot poorer in his absence.
I’m not suggesting McNair’s absence was the reason we were relegated, but his athleticism, stature and determination were just beginning to positively influence proceedings before his untimely injury. Against both Bournemouth and Hull he looked assured on the ball and was tenacious without it as we secured two impressive victories. Furthermore, two goals in the cup win against QPR also showed the Northern Irishman’s ability to impact a game further up the pitch.
Sunderland are desperate for another central midfielder to provide balance to the middle of the park, and McNair’s return might just be the answer to some of our current issues.
Much has been said about Duncan Watmore - both positive and negative. However, despite his shortcomings, the former England U21 international has the potential to be a good player. His first touch and decision-making skills are suspect at times, yet his movement, pace and direct nature bring much to the team.
Watmore gives us something we don’t have in forward areas right now - a versatile, pacey, direct forward who can stretch opposition defences and cause panic. He brings another dimension to our play, and will create space for himself and others across the pitch.
Again, nobody expects Watmore to drag us out of the mire by himself, or to fire us up the table. Yet Watmore should be a threatening striker in the Championship, and will cause opposition defences problems with his pace and movement - something sorely missing in the absence of Lewis Grabban.
Factor into the equation that Josh Maja will also likely be returning from injury soon and our forward options will have doubled in a matter of weeks.
George Honeyman’s half-decent start to the season should be enough proof to Grayson that placing faith in younger players needn’t be a particularly risky gamble - after all, most of our senior players have been atrocious so far this campaign.
Nobody is expecting Watmore, McNair and Maja to turn us into overnight promotion contenders, but they will certainly instill a much-needed shot of promise into a side riddled with self-doubt and severely lacking in quality.
Grayson needs to try something bold if he is to arrest our quickening plummet to the league’s basement, and if truth be told giving some of these returning youngsters a chance looks like being possibly the only roll of the dice he has left.