Bali Mumba: A
The surprise inclusion in that first game against Charlton Athletic, Mumba’s ability to rise to the occasion and perform like a seasoned pro was genuinely outstanding.
The fact at 16 the midfielder was able to back it up with a strong showing against a Luton Town side who’d go on to win the League One title says a lot about the character and talent of this teenager.
Cattermole’s reintroduction to the first-team and Dylan McGeouch’s return to fitness ended Mumba’s time as a first-team regular. But the now 17-year-old was a regular in the Checkatrade Trophy side and managed eight first team appearances in total.
Lee Cattermole: B+
Enjoyed an outstanding bounce-back season after his struggles in the Championship. Cattermole was coming off the worst season of his career, was booed by a portion of the fanbase in his first appearance this term and looked like he was playing in cement in 2017-18.
That makes Cattermole re-establishing himself as a true leader in this Sunderland side as one of the true high points we can salvage from a disappointing season. At League One level the 31-year-old is a commanding presence, his anticipation and timing looked sharp - even if his first-step is a touch slower.
The seven league goals were an added bonus and perhaps a by-product of the fact our former skipper is enjoying his football again.
Injuries were once again an issue, however. Cattermole was limited to 36 appearances in our marathon season and constant changes to our engine room was one of many reasons Jack Ross’ men played such drab football at the start of 2019.
Max Power: C
Much like Jack Baldwin, Power was a new signing with plenty of League One experience who hit the ground running. The Wearsiders’ early season form had a lot to do with Power’s ability to switch play, get forward and dictate proceedings.
And then the red cards happened.
Power simply didn’t recover his swagger and standing in the squad after picking up three straight red cards in four league starts. Of course, the red card at Walsall was rescinded and Power can feel hard done by the red received against Oxford compared to other horror challenges that received less punishment this season.
Regardless of whether or not Power deserved to be sent off three times, this new team had to learn to play without him and that relegated the former League One champion to an inconsistent bit-part player.
It was Power who lost his starting spot when Grant Leadbitter was signed in January, and given the timid nature of his performances following his suspension issues it was hard to argue with Ross’ decision.
The fixture pile-up after Sunderland’s Checkatrade Trophy final offered Power a route back into the team at the business end of the season and the 25-year-old took it with both arms. Power’s brilliant goal at Peterborough looks destined to be the great forgotten goal of the season given Matt Godden’s heart-breaking equaliser came moments later and ended our automatic promotion chances.
On the whole, Power fell short of the high expectations set by a player who has twice won promotion from League One and was a regular for Wigan both times. The midfielder’s career achievements and best performances in red and white suggest he could change that perception in year two, though.
George Honeyman: C-
The stench from our skipper’s poor late season form and anonymous role in Sunderland’s play-off final defeat hasn’t gone away yet, but Honeyman’s season can’t wholly be defined by his substandard form after his avoidable red card at Wycombe.
The 24-year-old was involved in most of Sunderland’s best performances, whether it was the four-goal blitzing of Barnsley, the goal-of-the-season contest our trip to Gillingham turned into, or the early season drubbing of Scunthorpe.
He excelled playing as a pure central midfielder when Power’s suspensions and injuries left Sunderland short of alternatives. The Mackem captain provided one of the moments of the season with his late winner at Rochdale too.
With Honeyman, the debate always starts and finishes with his captaincy, and it’s hard to evaluate his season without addressing this elephant in the room. Is he good enough or important enough for the armband? Is he inspiring enough to hold a leadership role in the dressing room? And most importantly, has Honeyman’s position as captain afforded him playing time his talent doesn’t warrant?
This isn’t the space for answering those questions, but fairly, or unfairly, Honeyman will need to improve on his six goals and three assists to remain a Sunderland regular.
Dylan McGeouch: D+
McGeouch has the talent to be a real hit on Wearside. His close control and ability in tight spaces is the best in the squad after Aiden McGeady’s wizardry. The wiry midfielder has a knack for stealing possession and sniffing out danger which is similar to Cattermole’s ball-winning abilities. McGeouch also raised his game against the good teams this year.
Yet, when you juxtapose his performances this season against the expectations we had for a player who received such glowing reviews in Scotland and produced incredible pre-season form, then McGeouch’s season has to be seen as a disappointment.
The 26-year-old’s early season performances were defined by his infuriating reluctance to play ambitious passes going forwards. The Scot just struggled to step out of Cattermole’s shadow or make a convincing case he deserved game-time over a highly experienced ex-Premier League player.
Ross has spoken about how certain Sunderland players are most comfortable when the game is ‘open’, when opposition teams push more players forward and play more ambitious football. This is definitely true of McGeouch. He was one of Sunderland’s best players in our home draw against champions Luton Town, McGeouch played well in our hard-fought draw at the Valley and started the 2-2 draw at home to Peterborough, a game Sunderland looked set to win comfortably before Bryan Oviedo’s moronic red card.
What all three of those high-pressure matches have in common is McGeouch started alongside Power. Had Power been signed earlier, then maybe McGeouch and Power could have built chemistry and become Sunderland’s first-choice midfield and had very different seasons.
The other major factor with McGeouch is injuries; time on the treatment table wrecked his momentum. He went down injured at the end of his legendary preseason run. His best back-to-back performances came against Accrington Stanley and Rochdale, and for the first time as a Sunderland player the Scotland international looked undroppable. Then injury struck again during our next match against Burton Albion, and in the perfect metaphor of his season more promise turned to nothing.
That injury effectively ended McGeouch’s season. When he was match-fit again Ross considered him the fourth-choice option - he didn’t even make our squad in the play-offs.
Ethan Robson: C+
Played well in his three EFL Trophy appearances, but considering Robson turns 23 this year and started six Championship games last season, his season was bitterly disappointing from a Sunderland perspective.
We sent the ball-winning midfielder on loan to Dundee where Robson was a regular starter, but for the purpose of his Sunderland grade we have only 179 minutes to go on.
The crushing aspect of Robson’s lost half-year on Sunderland is his starring performance - where he scored a wonderful goal against Carlisle United - came at a time when we were missing key midfielders, but was also the game he got injured in and was out for a couple of months, thus missing his small window to play in League One.
The local press constantly mentioned Ross’ admiration for Robson prior to his loan, but actions speak louder than words and Ross didn’t trust Robson in matches that truly mattered. Robson still scores well here for looking good in a lesser competition.
Jake Hackett: C+
Looked a great prospect in his three EFL Trophy outings; the 19-year-old was unflappable in possession at Morecambe and this decent technician should be seeking more first-team opportunities either at Sunderland or on loan next season.
Daniel Neil: C
Apologies to the young midfielder, but I can’t remember a single thing from his solitary Sunderland appearance in the Checkatrade Trophy clash with Morecambe. He was a late substitute against the Shrimps and here’s Alex McCain’s take from our match report: “wasn’t on long enough to make an impact”, he gets a C here, by default.
Grant Leadbitter: B-
Following a theme for these grades, Leadbitter had a transformational early impact on this Sunderland squad. Not only were his set-pieces a marked improvement on his teammate’s deliveries, but he also offered and extra level of composure and playmaking from the back of midfield.
Importing a footballer who has played almost exclusively at a higher level than the third tier seemed to make everyone’s life easier. Leadbitter deserves a lot of credit for the increasing ease the Black Cats had in breaking down bottom-half opposition in the final third of the season.
The major issue with Leadbitter is he can be exposed defensively - especially when Cattermole isn’t sat alongside him. Whilst the individual defending in the Coventry game was astonishingly bad, another major factor in that match was Leadbitter’s struggles in trying to protect a nervous, rattled defence. Coventry’s technical, intelligent forwards found acres of space that Leadbitter either couldn’t cover at 33 years of age, or didn’t have the tactical intelligence to prevent in the first place.
For the most part, Leadbitter made a successful start to his second stint playing for his hometown team. Not only did he take a pay cut to once again play at home, but he also played well in the play-offs just days after the death of his mother, showing bravery and commitment that went well beyond the call of duty.