As the minutes ticked by and the end of the January transfer window drew nearer, I, along with many other Sunderland fans, was in a state of excitement. It was well-known that we’d been chasing Will Grigg for some time, not least because the departure of Josh Maja had left us with a sizeable hole in our attacking ranks.
We needed a striker, and here, seemingly, was the man for the job.
When it was finally confirmed that Grigg had signed I was certain that we’d secured the services of a top-quality League One goal-getter. Yes, the price was absurdly high for a club in our position in the football pyramid, but for a man whose scoring record in this league was highly impressive it seemed to be a price worth paying. If he could replicate his Wigan form at the SOL, surely the sunlit uplands of the Championship would be within reach.
Fast forward eight months, however, and Will Grigg’s Sunderland career thus far has been one of frustration and much speculation about what has gone wrong, who’s to blame for it, and what can be done to rectify it. His goal against Burnley in the Carabao Cup was his solitary strike of the season, and the questions continue to linger about his lack of confidence, overall contribution, and lack of sharpness in front of goal. The mini-resurgence of Charlie Wyke, Chris Maguire’s consistency, and the promising form of Marc McNulty have also brought further scrutiny.
Much has been made of Grigg’s lack of goals being attributable to the ‘wrong system’ or Jack Ross’s tactics not being conducive to his style of play, but is that the root cause of the issue? Against Wimbledon, for example, Grigg had a glorious chance to score after being put through yet somehow put the ball wide from very close range. It was the classic ‘striker whose self-belief is at rock bottom’ kind of miss, and the collective groan inside the stadium told its own story.
Perhaps, then, the issue is not so much physical as it is mental.
When I think of the three strikers who have made the most significant contributions to our club over past twenty years, the one trait that they all shared was a bulletproof mindset and the confidence to believe that they could contribute each and every time they stepped onto the pitch.
Would Niall Quinn have scored THAT glorious swivel-and-lob against Luton if he was a shy and retiring type? Would Defoe have thumped home THAT strike against Newcastle if he had the slightest shred of doubt about his ability? And had he lacked confidence, Kevin Phillips certainly wouldn’t have volleyed home Gavin McCann’s cross at Loftus Road in 1999.
These were elite players with immense mental strength. Maybe it can be enhanced by the backing and the belief of a manager, but first and foremost it surely comes from within. The Stadium of Light, for a top striker, can be less of a football stadium and more of a stage, but it does take a particular kind of player to capitalise on that. As fans we don’t speak of mythical shirt numbers, and we do give our strikers a fair chance, but on the other hand for every Kevin Phillips there is a Danny Graham. When the goals dry up, there is no hiding place.
Top strikers approach games with the attitude of, “If I get a chance, I will take it, because that is what I do.” At the moment, whenever I watch Grigg play, I see a man who does not believe with full conviction that he will score. It could be that is is less than happy at our club, or maybe is feeling overburdened by the pressure of expectation, both of which can have a paralysing effect on a player. If, however, he is able to find the groove, bang in one or two goals, and reinvigorate himself, things could turn for the better extremely quickly.
I do not believe there is a Sunderland fan who wants Will Grigg to fail - my instinct tells me that he will continue to be given chances to succeed as long as he shows a good, resilient attitude, and that it would take a dramatic turn of events to see him depart the club, whether on loan or permanently.
His pedigree is undoubted and if he can take advantage of a chance, any chance, that breaks to him in the games ahead, his fire may yet be reignited.