Lynden Gooch: C-
Several Sunderland players had uneven seasons full of peaks and troughs, but no Black Cat had a more cliched tale of two halves season than Gooch.
The 23-year-old’s speed, technique, quick feet and Pitbull-like aggression caused League One defenders all sorts of problems early in the season. He was our cheat code.
Through the first 20 games the American international had five goals and eight assists in the league, but he didn’t record another goal contribution in the second-half of the season despite playing 19 times. An injury and less playing time distort those stats slightly, but that’s still a terrible drop off for someone who was a player of the year contender in November.
Many theories have been thrown around as to why Gooch was so bad in the second-half of the season and some have cynically suggested he just isn’t ‘that’ good. The idea he’s relaxed since signing a contract extension is another.
I’m not sure either are fair - Gooch is a young player who hasn’t played men’s football with any regularity prior to this season. In becoming a key player Gooch will have dealt with extra defensive attention and more detailed scouting focused on limiting his influence for the first time. League One defences have exposed the predictable nature of Gooch’s game and now it’s up to Gooch to evolve to avoid becoming a substandard third-tier footballer.
Next year will give us a much better idea of what sort of player Sunderland have on their hands after Gooch’s paradoxical first year as a regular starter.
Chris Maguire: B
Hard-worker, flair player, skillful technician, and an absolute master in the art of shithousery - Maguire was always going to be a hit on Wearside.
His penchant for scoring absolute screamers, ability to control a game and find space all over the final third of the pitch, plus his knack for producing when the stage gets bigger all made for a memorable first year in the north east.
Maguire’s basic statistics don’t blow you away - he scored seven times and set up a further five in 36 appearances and 24 starts in League One. He also lost the trust of Jack Ross mid-season. The 30-year-old was dropped from Sunderland’s 18-man squad at Oxford when Lewis Morgan was signed and Duncan Watmore was fit, with Maguire was arguably fifth choice.
The ex-Bury forward is also a weird fit as a starter, and his best performances often came when Aiden McGeady was unavailable. The team became too predictable when Maguire and McGeady were the main support for a lone Sunderland striker. Maguire and McGeady often occupy the same spaces and both look to beat players with skill in tight areas rather than blitzing by people with pace, or evading the opposition with off the ball movement.
The mercurial nature of Maguire’s game and patchy form at times stops him being a straight A student, but it’s hard to be too critical of a player who achieved cult hero status from the minute he arrived at the Stadium of Light.
Luke Molyneux: C-
Expectations were reasonably high for one of last season’s best under 23 players - Molyneux also started in Sunderland’s 3-0 feel-good win over Wolverhampton Wanderers in the final game of last season, suggesting he had the potential to make an impact on the first team.
Sadly, the 21-year-old never won the trust of Ross, despite Sunderland’s lack of options in his position at the start of the season with Duncan Watmore and Aiden McGeady sidelined.
Molyneux only managed 40 minutes in total for the first-team across six substitute minutes and none of them were particularly memorable. The majority of his season was spent on loan in the National League for Gateshead and Hartlepool United, otherwise Molyneux would likely have got more EFL Trophy minutes.
Elliot Embleton: D+
Rivalling Bali Mumba as the most exciting prospect currently at the Academy of Light, Embleton spent the season on loan at Grimsby Town in League Two.
The 20-year-old managed one start prior to his loan, a League Cup clash with Sheffield Wednesday, he started on the left-wing and was ineffective on the night.
I don’t want to be too harsh on a young player mixing it with a team in the division above, but given the level of hype that surrounds Embleton I was expecting more.
Aiden McGeady: A
Alongside McLaughlin, McGeady was Sunderland’s only real true League One all-star, a player widely considered to be the best in his position in this league.
Very few players in League One, if any, can match McGeady’s ability to change the complexion of a game in an instant. Whether it’s one of his stunning free-kicks, long distance missiles, or his ability to create just enough space to curl into the far corner, the 33-year-old is a deadly weapon at this level.
No Sunderland player provided more highlights, whether it was McGeady’s free-kick at Wembley, equaliser in the same game, or his brilliant solo goal at Plymouth. The former Celtic man was a constant source of joy in a tough, ultimately devastating return to the third tier.
It’s hard to pick fault with the club’s player of the season - he played through the pain barrier starting games with a broken foot at Easter and had few quiet games all season.
Duncan Watmore: D+
Given his injury struggles this feels harsh, but it’s hard to assess Watmore’s season as anything other than another disappointment.
The former England under 21 international looked a completely different player to the one who combined so well with Jermain Defoe and looked set to be a very good Premier League player prior to his first injury.
Watmore never rediscovered his first-touch in 16 first-team appearances and was infuriatingly wasteful in front of goal. The 25-year-old’s final ball was always a point of contention, but his decision-making in the final third, understandably considering how long he’s been out, is still maddeningly poor.
It wasn’t all bad - Watmore did manage two goals and an assist before suffering another season-ending injury. His one league goal was an important one too, with Watmore equalising in the dying minutes to save Sunderland from an embarrassing defeat at Wycombe.
Watmore started only three league games and didn’t recapture the confidence and fearlessness that defined his game when he was establishing himself as a footballer. Ultimately he needs more minutes and a longer injury-free stretch to show his best form in Sunderland colours.
Jack Diamond: C+
Looked a lively, talented prospect in his three substitute appearances in the Checkatrade Trophy, someone with the pace and skill to beat his marker. He spent a short spell out on loan with Spennymoor in the National League North, gaining proper experience at a competitive level in a team who were gunning for promotion.
Hopefully Diamond gets more first-team opportunities somewhere next year.
Lewis Morgan: B-
The best realistic scenario you can hope for when you loan a youngster. Morgan displayed talent that was above what Ross already had at his disposal, with his unique ability to dribble past players at pace and beat his man not just with speed, but skill as well.
As you’d expect from a young inexperienced player, the 22-year-old was inconsistent. There were matches where I’d forget Morgan was on the pitch, or he’d be subbed off without having a memorable moment.
Ross’s use of the Celtic winger was also curious - the Scotland international completed 90 minutes only twice in Sunderland colours, with the gaffer rightly or wrongly doubting his capacity to produce over a full match.
For all his brilliant moments, the wonderful half-volley against Doncaster Rovers being the best one, it’s also impossible to rate Morgan’s season without bringing up his play-offs horror show. He performed poorly both in the final and first-leg against Portsmouth, shrinking when the club needed him the most.