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INTERVIEW: Josh Murray from the Burton Mail gives us insight on Sunderland new boy Tom Flanagan

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Sunderland signed Northern Ireland international Tom Flanagan from Burton Albion last week. As such, we sat down with Josh Murray - journalist at the Burton Mail - to get the low down on what he’s like and what we can expect.

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RR: So - Tom Flanagan. How would you summarise his time as a Burton Albion player?

JM: Flanagan’s time with the Brewers was a really interesting journey. Signed by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, he broke into a regular role at centre-back after Nigel Clough joined in December 2015 and helped them to promotion. He was then utilised as a wing-back at the start of their first Championship campaign, and after a tough run of games, came under pressure from some supporters.

Flanagan responded to that brilliantly, and after Albion switched systems to a back four, he thrived at full-back as one of Burton’s best performers towards the end of 2016-17 as they survived. He initially turned down a contract offer from the club last summer, only to return in August, re-sign for the club and enjoy a campaign of greater consistency at the back. He got his first and only two goals for the club in a great spell around Christmas, and there was some surprise at him being made available for transfer in May.

RR: Fans will have noted that he was placed on the transfer list by Nigel Clough with intrigue. The fact a team in the same league as us didn’t want him might alarm some supporters - what would you advise they make of the fact he wasn’t particularly wanted?

JM: As I say, some fans were quite surprised to see Flanagan, a good defensive performer, put on the transfer list. But Nigel Clough was pretty clear with his reasoning, with Albion needing to streamline their squad and cut the budget following relegation.

Here’s what he said: “He’s got a year left, but we have to free something up somewhere. With John Brayford, if Damien McCrory stays (he has been offered a new deal), and Ben Turner stepping in at left-back as he did, I don’t think we can carry all three. He’s made 57 Championship appearances in the last two years, and he did well. He had a new lease of life, almost, at full-back. The reasoning for bringing him back was he covers you all the way across the back four. That’s still the case, but we have to make cuts somewhere and unfortunately, that’s one of them. He hasn’t done anything wrong greatly. It’s just that, as I say, if Damien signs, it’ll be Brayford and Damien who’ll be our full-backs.”

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RR: How do Burton Albion fans view Flanagan?

JM: Flanagan really endeared himself to supporters with the way he bounced back from some criticism and a few poor performances near the start of 2016-17 to become such a key figure in Albion’s defence during their successful survival push.

His initial decision to turn down a contract offer last summer and look elsewhere obviously did not sit well with everyone. But the form he showed at times in 2017-18 after deciding to come back made up for that for some, and many have been disappointed to see him leave.

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RR: Do you think he’s good enough to start regularly for Sunderland in League One?

JM: Flanagan earned promotion to the Championship with Albion in 2015-16, so that experience will make him a valuable addition to a League One squad.

Whether he is a regular starter will be dependent on the other business Jack Ross does this summer, but his versatility and ability to play across the defensive line is important, meaning he can cover different roles.

I would expect he’ll play a big part next season.

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RR: What’s his best position? We’ve heard he’s capable just about anywhere across the defence.

JM: We have seen a lot more of him at full-back and wing-back than centre-half. His attacking game was a weakness earlier in his Brewers career, but that has improved markedly over the past 12 months.

Mixing his athleticism getting forward and his ability in a one-on-one defensive situation makes him a valuable performer at full-back.

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RR: What would you say his best attributes are, and what would you say were his greatest weaknesses?

JM: In terms of the plus sides - he’s got pace in defence, is very good when challenging in one-on-one situations out wide and has a good reading of the game.

But, he still has moments of inconsistency when getting forward, with a loose pass or mishit cross sometimes affecting attacks.

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RR: Sunderland’s new regime have made a point of targeting players with a point to prove, that still have the ability to improve and get better with us. Would you say Flanagan fits the mould, or not?

JM: He has been promoted to the Championship and then became a reasonably regular starter for Burton in the second tier, so I’m not sure if he has a point to prove.

But he is looking to break fully into the Northern Ireland team after making his debut last year, and he will certainly want to get back into the Championship.

From his first interview, it also looks like he is excited to move to a club with the size and stature of Sunderland.