Our fortunes this season will in large part be determined by Phil Parkinson’s ability to find a successful striker to - in old-fashioned terms - “lead the line”.
Last season Parkinson predominantly selected Charlie Wyke to be that pivot – the leader of the front three. In Parkinson’s system of three forward players, having someone to occupy the central defenders - to hold up the ball - to create space for others to run off and create space to run into, is critical to its success.
It could be argued that the success of the entire system is dependent upon that one player. This creates a pressure – a pressure that this player will need to live on and thrive off.
Over the years we have has a number or target men – leaders of the line. Some have enjoyed great success others much less so - some have been totally suitable to the role others completely unsuited.
The most obvious place to start when looking back over Sunderland target men is to think of the best of the lot - the one and only Niall Quinn.
Quinn arrived following our promotion season of 1995/96; a season which we played, for the most part, without a traditional target man. It was clear though that Reid was searching for such a player - no doubt he recalled the success which he had at Everton playing with Graeme Sharp and Andy Gray, two excellent leaders of the line.
There was always a feeling that Reid didn’t trust the likes of Craig Russell and Phil Gray to be that leader, despite their relative success in the second tier. The arrival of Paul Stewart in the latter part of the promotion season changed things; Stewart wasn’t easy on the eye as a player and didn’t score the goals that the other two did, but Reid clearly saw the need for his experience and know how.
Stewart was the precursor to the arrival of a player of the quality and style of Niall Quinn. Reid clearly believed in a leader of the line and success followed.
Not all target men over the years have been six foot four and dominant in the air or with the body. Eric Gates was a leader of the line and very different from the likes of Quinn, but like Quinn he was technically very good. Clearly he was not aerially dominant, but he had great success.
It was Denis Smith who found that position for Gates, pushing him further forward to partner Gabbiadini, but he continued to look for a different type of partner for Marco, whether that was the brute force of Billy Whitehurst or the height and presence of Thomas Hauser. Neither of those two worked, however, and Smith kept bringing Gates successfully back into the team to be that pivot.
It is a bit before my time, but the childhood tales of the 1973 team coming together with the arrival halfway through that season of a true leader of the line - Vic Halom - also come to mind. A player who brought out the best in others, bull strong, unselfish he was the perfect foil for the talent of Tuert and Hughes.
In the more modern period Kenwynne Jones was a target man who successfully took the weight for Djibril Cisse and then Darren Bent, and prior to that he held that line on his own brilliantly. Roy Keane clearly saw the value - Steve Bruce less so as he tinkered and changed and moved Jones on to Stoke; our loss.
Sunderland have tried many times to find players for this role - players of certain talent, with good attributes, but who were totally unsuited to carry out the task in hand.
Think of Connor Wickham; a talent but not a player to lead. Think Lilian Laslandes; a France international who was asked to play back to goal and challenge for diagonal balls – he had no idea what to do. Think Ashley Fletcher; a lesser talent but not one to lead at that age and stage of his career.
We have had other strikers – Gyan, Bent, Maja (at this level) and Defoe who were just so good they could play and score goals their own.
So what makes a successful leader of the line? It is too simplistic to say “ability”, as that underpins everything. It’s not just physicality – hump it to the big lad works for the under 11’s and in Sunday football but it’s not enough. And Eric Gates and Niall Quinn were very different footballers.
It’s about strength of character - the ability to take the whacks and play the crowd and thriving on it. It’s about suitability to a particular style of play. It’s about playing in partnerships, understanding the requirements of the system, and of those around you. It’s about selfless work, on and off the ball.
Will Charlie Wyke prove us all wrong and become the talisman that we need? Does he have enough ability in him to succeed and does he want it enough?
Will Danny Graham return to be the ‘shithouse’ who will provide the physicality and know how that is needed in this league? Can he raise himself for one last hurrah can he have a stab at redemption after his previous failure here?
Does Will Grigg have the strength of character in him to lead the line in a very different way?
We will just have to see what happens, but if we are to achieve promotion then one of them needs to step up and be a true leader of that front line. A leader like Gates, Quinn, Halom or Jones.
They can’t shrink from the responsibility - it is the most important position in the team.