I was very surprised to learn earlier this week that Callum McFadzean signed for Sunderland as a free agent, not because he’s incapable of performing competently for the Lads, but because it’s been quite a journey for him in the last two and a bit years.
To put into context, he signed for Bury initially on a six-month deal in August 2018, after successfully proving his worth to Ryan Lowe over a trial period. He had previously turned out for Guiseley and Alfreton Town, the latter of which released him the year prior. Even though I always did (and still) take a considered view on every acquisition the team I support makes, it didn’t scream of someone who was going to make a big splash at Gigg Lane.
What’s important to always remember, however, is that there are many reasons a player is let go by a club, and I’d say more often than not, it’s not primarily to do with their ability, or lack thereof. There were strong intimations when he gave his first interview for The Shakers that it had been his behaviour off the field, rather than because of anything on it, that had led to the downward spiral in his career to that point. He had started out at Sheffield United, and enjoyed successful loan spells with other EFL outfits, Burton Albion in particular.
It took him time to adjust back to fourth tier football. Though handed a first team berth quickly by his manager after he switched to the extremely attack-minded 3-5-2, he didn’t initially impress me whatsoever. It was more than apparent to me that his new-found role was, despite Lowe’s tactics, more defensive than he’d been used to before, having begun his pro career as a more conventional left-winger. He’d often be caught out of position, targeted by opposition scouts and coaches as someone to isolate, and worst of all, there was a streak in him that would make him quick to anger.
Nevertheless, Lowe kept faith, partly down to a paucity of other options comfortable in that role. Chris Stokes, who initially held the fort there, simply didn’t have the necessary athleticism to operate there for a full 90 minutes. Like everyone else though, his individual performance levels rose markedly after an indifferent start, and his deal was extended at the end of October ‘til the end of that campaign. Initially, I was actually against this, simply because I didn’t feel as though he’d had enough good games under his belt to warrant it.
Thankfully, he proved me wrong. Practically the only outfield player not to score that season in white and navy blue, he developed an on-field rapport with Danny Mayor, and the duo fed each other with quick, short passes to advance up the flank with lightning speed. His crossing was principally aimed low and hard across the ground for Nicky Maynard or Jay O’Shea to slide in on, which owed as much as to the lack of aerial ability in attacking areas as it did to his reliability in creating those chances.
Naturally, with the impending demise of the original Bury FC looming, he reluctantly left Greater Manchester, and followed Lowe and a clutch of other first team players and management down to Plymouth Argyle in League Two, despite having just earned a ‘fairytale’ promotion on the back of not receiving his wages from Steve Dale for several months (along with everyone else).
I saw him turn out a couple of times for The Pilgrims, most notably away at then-leaders Forest Green Rovers late in 2019. By then, he’d added a small goal threat to his repertoire, but that particular match was a war of attrition, and he had to come off as a precaution after suffering a dead leg.
It was well-known that the commute between his base and Devon was putting a strain on his young family, so it wasn’t a great surprise that he left promoted Plymouth after COVID-19 cut the season short. I’d taken my eye slightly off all the transfer movements in the subsequent protracted window, so as I said at the outset, his move to the north-east took me by surprise.
What exactly can Black Cats expect from him, though?
That’s the key question. I am reliably informed that Denver Hume is the stand-out performer thus far for Sunderland, and the signing of McFadzean is most certainly going to be playing second fiddle to the Academy of Light graduate, at least for the foreseeable.
The truncated season though means Phil Parkinson will have to rotate, regardless of form and favour. Even disregarding COVID as a possible factor in team selection, when he’s fully match-fit, Callum will feature.
He is quick, accurate with his final ball (and will have a greater variety of options to aim for than he did at his last two clubs), and in Max Power, he has the potential to strike up a similar relationship to the one he enjoyed with Mayor. Most of all, he will give 100% effort every match, which, whilst sounding as though it ought to be the minimum, many players can coast through spells of games. He does not, and it will endear him to supporters, regardless of whether he ever usurps Hume; that shouldn’t really be the focus.
These days, Sunderland don’t have the luxury/burden (depending on your point of view) of a large roster to choose from. A third year in League One has seen to that, and whilst McFadzean is unlikely to pull off anything spectacular, he ought not to be overawed by being at the club, and is already well versed in promotion campaigns.