Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Sunderland U23s win over West Bromwich Albion on Monday evening was that our team featured a trialist, Armenian international defender Gaël Andonian.
At the age of just 23 Andonian is just at the start of his career, but after his release from Marseille following the expiration of his contract at the end of last season he has been on the lookout for a new club somewhere in Europe.
He’s spent the last few weeks training with the first team at the Academy of Light and, in his first opportunity to shine, he completed a full ninety minutes in the centre of defence as Elliott Dickman’s side won 2-1.
Because of his age and inexperience, Andonian isn’t particularly well known. He made just one appearance in the Marseille first team, as a substitute when he was just 19 year old, and has played the majority of his football either out on loan or for Marseille’s second string in the fourth tier of French football.
With that in mind I spoke with Baptiste Binet (who writes for Le Parisien and is a fan of Dijon, the club for whom Andonian spent a brief spell on loan with during the 2015-16 season) and Karen Rafayelyan (the editor of Armenian sports website Vivaro News) to try and find out more about the player and whether he stands a chance of earning a contract with Sunderland.
On his time on loan with Dijon FCO...
Baptiste Binet: “Gael arrived at Dijon in October 2015. The situation was that we really wanted to get promoted to Ligue 1, so we needed another central defender or left back just in case. He only played six league games with Dijon and he was sent off against Bourg en Bresse in the January. That was the last game for him and he never played again. He never was on the bench either because, in Ligue 2, we can only choose five substitutes and the coach instead chose to put a full back on the bench. He scored twice (in the same game). I don’t know if the majority of Dijon fans will even remember him. I think he was a good guy, but he didn't write history with only six games in the team!”
On why he never ‘made it’ at Marseille...
Karen Rafayelyan: “During the 2014/15 season Andonian got some minutes with the first team. At the time he was the captain of Olympique Marseille II, so he was expected to get more playing time for the following season. But then, Rudy Garcia came in as a manager and Andonian was forgotten for a long time. Then he was loaned to Dijon. In the following years he had loans to Dijon and Veria (Greece), but bar that one substitute appearance he never played for the Marseille first team.”
Baptiste Binet: “At that time it was very difficult for Andonian to gain regular game time at Marseille, who instead prefer to buy new young players from outside of the club than to be confident in their own academy and the players it produces. There are two explanations for this - 1, the players from the academy weren’t good enough (with the exception of Samir Nasri, nobody really comes out at Marseille) and 2, the manager and club don’t really care about the academy. The truth is between those two. Andonian just didn’t stand a chance.”
On whether he’s been a good player for the Armenian national team...
Karen Rafayelyan: “The Armenian national team always has problems in the centre of defence, and he was considered as a potential player to fill the position. He was called to the team aged 19. He got a really warm welcome by fans, and he had many good matches for the team. Of course, he wasn’t the best player we expected to see in that position, but there were big hopes with him, to see him growing a big player and solve that problem for the national team. But, as you can see, his club affairs were not as good as we expected to see here in Armenia. He had also some terrible matches in an Armenia shirt - once he got a red card in the first half. But generally, we can say that Gael Andonian’s International career and football has been much better than his club career.”
On the sort of defender he is...
Karen Rafayelyan: “Gael Andonian is a classic centre-back. They tried to use him at left-back in the national team and also at some of his clubs, but he plays better in centre. He plays good with his head, he is tactically clever - he is not fast, but also not slow. It is difficult to say what are his strengths and weaknesses, he’s just generally competent all round. As I said, we expected he would develop these qualities, but in the last 2-3 years he hasn’t made any real progress which you can see on the pitch.”
Baptiste Binet: “Andonian is very much an old-school defender - he isn't physical, and not even quick (a problem if you want him to play as a left back) but is very good at being in the right place at the right time. That said, he’s not really played against players of the quality that he’d come up against in England, even in the third tier.”
On why his career has stalled to this point...
Baptiste Binet: “Let me put it this way... without meaning to sound rude about Gael, I don’t understand how he can play for Sunderland, especially if you want to go back to the second division.”
Karen Rafayelyan: “I am not well informed about his club affairs, but I guess the problem was that he kept the dream to play for Marseille and stuck with the club for a very long time. Maybe, now he has left, he can find better-suited teams where he’ll not only play more regularly but also develop as a player.”
And the burning question - could he be a success at Sunderland?
Karen Rafayelyan: “Every new challenge is now a big chance for Gael to settle his career. I am sure Andonian still has something to offer. I also hope your coach will work with him well psychologically, as he needs to completely restart his career.”
Baptiste Binet: “The answer is no, not really. This trial surprised me a lot. I really think Andonian is a good guy but I don’t see how he could possibly succeed at Sunderland when he couldn’t even get into the team at Dijon.”