Josh Maja: A
It still hurts writing about how great Josh Maja was in the first half of the season.
The 20-year-old entered the season as a talented teenager whose main experiences playing for Sunderland involved being bullied, isolated and unable to score for a miserable team that finished bottom of the Championship.
However, Maja’s goals kept Sunderland afloat in the League One title race despite Jack Ross’ side playing uninspired football at times in the early stages of the season.
His 15 league goals heading into the New Year kept Maja among the division’s top scorers - he netted against all three promoted teams and set standards Charlie Wyke and Will Grigg simply couldn’t live up to.
Maja didn’t leave the Stadium of Light as a perfect player, and there were games where the sheer physicality of League One got the better of him. Maja became too passive in certain away fixtures, allowing League One defenders to bullying him out of games, and his link-up play was inconsistent.
Maja’s exit from Sunderland left a void that was never truly filled, and you could argue his excellence wasn’t properly appreciated until he left.
Jerome Sinclair: D-
For a majority of his short stay on Sunderland, Sinclair was an effective alternative to Maja - a tougher player who could bring others into play and battle with League One centre halves.
For the most part Sinclair’s lack of goals was countered by the other things he did on the pitch and his ability to make those around him better. The problem was that, eventually, no matter how good a striker can run the channels or occupy a back four they need to score goals.
It’s telling that the instant Sinclair’s form dipped Ross lost complete faith in him. One abysmal showing against Wycombe relegated the Watford loanee from starter to an untrusted squad player.
Ultimately, for all his qualities, his goal-scoring record wasn’t good enough and there are a reason few fans complained when his loan was cut short.
Charlie Wyke: D
Wyke’s form over Easter saved him from being the latest in a long list of centre-forward flops on Wearside this century, but is managing better form than Jozy Altidore, Danny Graham, or Andy Gray really good enough for Sunderland’s marquee summer signing?
On his day Wyke can be dominant. His size, link-up play and impressive technique at this level can give defenders fits. He was the focal point of Sunderland’s post-Checkatrade trophy final surge, scoring a crucial leveller against Rochdale and dominating Doncaster Rovers.
The problem was Wyke’s big games were too rare. After an agonising knee injury kept the 26-year-old on the sidelines for most of the first half of the season, he looked as bereft of confidence as any Sunderland striker from our hall of shame.
His humiliating cameo away at Bristol Rovers was a clear low-point, but maybe more worrying was the way he struggled against the big boys. Apart from terrorising the Doncaster defence, he barely laid a glove on the top six teams and was ineffective in the play-offs.
Four goals and four assists in 24 appearances isn’t good enough for a team with Sunderland’s ambitions.
Benji Kimpioka: B
Of all the under 23 players who starred in Sunderland’s Checkatrade Trophy run, none of them matched Kimpioka’s impact.
The 19-year-old scored twice and laid on another goal in five appearances to put the Black Cats within one match of Wembley. Kimpioka possesses useful unpredictability, an ability to fearlessly attack defenders with his dribbling skills and strong self-belief in front of goal.
Kimpioka is still extremely raw and doesn’t always seem to know what the end goal is when he starts charging at defenders with the ball. Still, the good clearly outweighs the bad when it comes to this teenage prospect. The one major disappointment is that even when Sunderland were shorthanded with injuries and lacked options after Maja’s departure, Ross could only find 26 minutes of League One action for the Swedish under 19 international.
Lee Connelly: C+
Played well in the three substitute appearances he made in the EFL Trophy.
Connelly looks a good prospect, another attacker with the ability and belief to pass players and get shots away on goal. At 19, the Scot should be targeting first-team opportunities out on loan.
Will Grigg: D
Grigg was clearly hampered by the ankle problem he suffered just before his transfer to Sunderland, and he wasn’t always helped by Ross’ tactics or the lack of quality passers within the Sunderland squad.
But, as a marquee signing and being the man tasked with replicating Maja’s brilliance in what is in all likelihood a record transfer fee for a third-tier club, it’s impossible to categorise Grigg’s half season as anything other than a failure.
Lads fans did see glimpses of the talent and first-rate finishing that has made the Northern Ireland international so deadly in the past. His winner at home to Walsall was brilliant - his confidence to create space for himself and finish early before the goalkeeper was set showed a technical ability few players in League One can match.
Even fewer players would have the vision and confidence to execute that move in the second-half of a tense fixture. His finish against Bristol Rovers in the EFL Trophy semi-final was another example of Grigg’s deadly class in front of goal.
Grigg needs his manager and teammates to do more to play to his strengths and use his super work rate to trouble opposition defences, but Grigg also needs to improve substantially in order to live-up to his reputation and price tag.
Kazaiah Sterling: C
I’m not totally sure why we signed Sterling.
Was it so Stewart Donald could save face after promising he’d sign two strikers in January? Did we dupe Tottenham into thinking we would play the youngster and just sign him to make up the numbers? Or did the coaching staff truly believe that, like Donald intimated on the Roker Rapport Podcast, the 20-year-old had the potential to make a Maja-like impact in League One?
Whatever the reason, with hindsight Sterling’s signing was utterly futile. Ross showed slightly more confidence in Tottenham’s raw, inexperienced, talented striker than our own raw, inexperienced, talented striker. Sterling didn’t have a decisive impact on Sunderland’s season in either a positive or negative way.
When the Spurs player did play, he looked alright - a good technician, with decent pace and a strong work ethic. Unsurprisingly for a player who has barely sniffed first-team football before, he made mistakes and was inconsistent in his occasional league outings.
Sterling’s best performance was his last performance at Southend, his introduction from the bench helped energise a lacklustre Sunderland team.
Playing on the right wing he showed an extra level of confidence and decisiveness, but it didn’t matter - Ross didn’t include him in a single play-off squad.