Will Josh Maja still be a Sunderland player next season?
There is no more terrifying question for Sunderland fans at the moment.
Maja is a bona fide superstar at League One level. At just 19 years-old he is joint-top scorer in the division, establishing himself as one of the most devastating finishers in the English Football League.
His skill, cold-blooded nature in front of goal and clear room for growth in terms of his hold-up play and physicality will have scouts and coaches salivating at the prospect of signing this talent, for free, in nine months’ time.
It’s impossible to have a conversation about who is Sunderland’s best or most important player without bringing-up Maja, which is all the more remarkable when you remember he’s the youngest man in the team.
From Sunderland’s perspective it’s simple. You do everything within your powers to sign this man. You sign him to a long-term deal, and you do it quickly. If possible, you sign Maja up to a lucrative deal tomorrow. You make sure that contract has promotion clauses that incentivises Maja to buy into Sunderland AFC for the long haul.
Losing Maja would be a massive body-blow - we’ve been bitten too many times by one of the ugliest truths in modern football, that every club is now a “selling club”.
Quite remarkably for a club that has done so much losing in recent years, we’ve seen many stars grow exponentially and do great things after breaking away from the Stadium of Light.
Jordan Pickford was one of the best goalkeepers at the World Cup and is now an absolute national treasure. This transformation has taken place since a profile-raising move to Everton.
Jordan Henderson was our most important player when he was barely out of his teens. He was granted a golden opportunity at Liverpool and has grafted his way to a leadership role within one of the best teams in Europe.
Even when players with less of an attachment and connection to the club flourish it hurts. Wahbi Khazri has his flaws and isn’t the best conditioned footballer in the world, but he’s so fun to watch and has boatloads of ability. It’s gutting that he’s not still scoring stunners in red and white. His current teammate at Saint-Etienne, Yann M’Vila, is another. It’s been over two years and he was reportedly on hefty wages, but I still can’t believe we didn’t bring him back to Wearside.
For both footballing and emotional reasons, we need Maja to sign on that dotted line. Whilst we can’t thank Stewart Donald and co enough for lifting the atmosphere around the Stadium of Light, and removing the losing culture that has plagued Sunderland for at least half a decade.
Keeping Maja still feels like an important statement to further elevate Sunderland back towards the level we should be competing at.
The problem is Maja has options - we don’t.
The Mirror reported that several Premier League clubs are monitoring the young striker’s progress and would be interested in picking up a tantalising asset for free in the summer.
Beyond the Mirror report it doesn’t take much imagination to speculate that Championship clubs in need of goals to avoid relegation or to push for promotion might be interested in a young, expert finisher who could be available for a discount - which just makes the situation all the more nerve-wrecking and tortuous for lads fans.
First of all, the obvious and key point to make is that the leap from League One to the Premier League is huge, and first team chances for young players there are fleeting.
Especially during an international break, you don’t have to look far for articles devoted to highlighting dwindling percentage of English players within that league, or the number of hot prospects whose careers stalled after their big money move to the Premier League or contract extension at a top six club.
Sunderland officials should feel confident at pointing to Dominic Solanke, a can’t-miss prospect four years ago, who doesn’t even make Liverpool’s matchday squad. Or even proven Premier League players and England internationals whose careers have been mismanaged this summer at Chelsea - Danny Drinkwater and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are stuck in footballing limbo until January. They were so low on Chelsea’s priorities neither has been sold or loaned, despite both being regular omissions from the Blues’ matchday squad.
Absolute worst-case scenario should a Premier League club be fortunate enough to sign Maja, we should be confident of at least agreeing a loan deal to give Maja the minutes and first team opportunities he needs at his age, as well as allowing us to keep a blossoming talent whose goals would help further Sunderland’s revival in either the Championship or League One.
So, if all the evidence is pointing to the Premier League being too much too soon for Maja - given that older, more highly touted frontmen like Solanke and Tammy Abraham aren’t getting opportunities in that division - let’s look at the Championship, where it starts to gets complicated.
It’s easy to compare Maja’s season with another academy graduate Joel Asoro and claim that the former is in a much better situation, but that seems like an oversimplification of how Asoro’s getting on in Wales. In fact, that’s quite an arrogant statement that does a total disservice to Graham Potter and the Swans’ coaching team.
Four starts, no goals and one assist are statistics many observers have grabbed as proof Asoro’s time in Swansea has been a failure. The guy’s 19. He’s been involved in eight Championship matches and would have played more barring an ankle injury. Not only is he playing in the division above, under one of the most highly-regarded young coaches in British football, but he’s part of a young hungry squad that’s fighting for a playoff spot despite selling all their best performers from last season.
There’s no guarantee Sunderland will be promoted next season. The consensus is that 12 games in the Black Cats are well-placed for promotion having gone through an almighty transition in the summer. Teething problems were always likely giving the wholesale changes throughout the squad and Sunderland’s blip whilst Jack Ross tried to integrate injured players back into the team has been completely understandable.
But there are no guarantees in football and Sunderland haven’t defended like a championship-winning team for most of the season.
Maja and his representatives may have doubts over our trophy winning credentials and prefer the security Asoro has with his four-year contract at Swansea. The story hasn’t been written on either of these brilliant teenagers and now is not the time for Mackem gloating when it comes to Asoro’s situation.
The other highly talented young player to leave Sunderland in the summer was Paddy McNair and his situation is exactly the one Maja should look to avoid.
In joining Middlesbrough, McNair put his career in the hands of Tony Pulis - a conservative pragmatist who has little time for player-development. Yet, even the most pessimistic projections of what life at the Riverside might be like for McNair wouldn’t have seen this coming.
He’s played less than half an hour of Championship football. Pulis signed two more central midfielders after McNair’s arrival, begging the question as to why Middlesbrough brought our former midfielder to the club.
It’s genuinely difficult to understand the club’s thinking. Has McNair been bought for his versatility? Does he look completely unplayable in training? Was he simply bought in a Mourinho style fashion, to ensure no rivals could get him?
Whatever the reasoning, McNair is in a tough spot now and must be regretting putting his career in the hands of an old school football man.
McNair’s plight, although it’s unlikely to be a terminal blow to his career, is exactly the example Sunderland owners should be raising in talks with Maja. It perfectly highlights the importance of choosing the right club to move to, and making sure those in charge have your best interests in mind.
Stewart Donald can point to what Sunderland have in place, in terms of an ambitious strategy to return to the Premier League and a quality manager who understands and values Maja’s obvious ability.
McNair proved he can excel in the Championship last season, yet remains untrusted at Middlesbrough.
Maja doesn’t have the same track record in the Championship. He was a baby in footballing terms when he was thrusted into the first team last year. And whilst it was completely understandable that he did so, he struggled badly in the championship. You’d think smart coaches and football teams would understand that he was a teenager in a dreadful team that didn’t get much service, or opportunities to showcase his talents. But then again, you’d think McNair is worthy of more than half an hour’s game time this season.
Maja will obviously want to play at the highest level possible, but given how difficult it is for players his age to get on the pitch, a problem especially for strikers where most teams just play one man up top. His current spot as the main striker for a promotion chasing team, where he’ll get plenty chances to add to his remarkable goal-tally feels like too good a situation to walk away from.
If Maja walks away from a promotion contender - one that will give him the opportunity to score a bucket-load of goals and further raise his profile - he better be sure he’s joining a club who value him as highly as we do at Sunderland.