If, in the summer of 2017, you were told that Jason Denayer would play in a Champions League semi-final within the next four years, you might be forgiven for being laughed out of house and home.
A player who was regularly average, but not terrible, in the middle of a very disappointing Sunderland team. Yet, despite his struggles, and, ultimately our relegation to the Championship, the Belgian international has gone on to enjoy a very decent spell in his career.
The 2016-17 season was one of many in the 21st century that Sunderland fans like to forget. Under David Moyes we had become a lethargic joke of a team, getting limply turned over by everyone, from Arsenal to West Ham. Denayer featured in 24 league games throughout the season, often being shoehorned into a side which became too comfortable with defeat.
Denayer is a central defender by trade, but it was rare he was given a chance in his natural position. Moyes preferred the likes of O’Shea, Djilobodji and Kone to fill these gaps, leaving Denayer to be tasked with playing in a CDM role. This pushed him into unknown territory, but perhaps worst of all he needed to play alongside Didier Ndong. Being played out of position in a team sinking like a stone is usually a recipe for disaster.
At the end of Denayer’s time on Wearside, he and the club had very different fortunes. Sunderland dropped into the Championship, but the Belgian was given the chance to play for another top flight team; albeit in Turkey. In one season with Galatasaray, Denayer featured 22 times and won the Superliga title. He was sporting a league winners medal whilst Sunderland dropped into the third tier of English football.
All of the time Sunderland have been in League One, Denayer has been strutting his stuff in France with Lyon. The first permanent move of his career saw him reach a Champions League semi-final. Even more recently, Denayer scored his first goal for his country in a 2-0 win over Denmark. He is obviously enjoying his football, and has been allowed to develop much more since leaving the Stadium of Light.
With the benefit of hindsight, the criticisms of him whilst at Sunderland can be explained away. Denayer wasn’t that bad of a player, at all. He was simply the victim of being in the right place at the wrong time.
If he played under Gus Poyet or Sam Allardyce, we may have seen a young centre half given the chance to thrive in his natural position. As it was, he was always destined to struggle in a David Moyes team; very few players looked like Premier League footballers during this particular season.
Jason Denayer is part of a band of players who have looked below par at Sunderland, only to move on and have a better time of things elsewhere. Yet unlike most, he was let down by the club more than he let the club down. He suffered at the hands of poor management, and teammates who didn’t give a toss about the club.
At 25 he, arguably, still has his best years ahead of him. He has European football and the potential to represent his country at a major tournament coming to look forward to. He never shone at Sunderland but, given the chance to play in a half-decent team, Denayer has shown that he is a reliable defender for both club and country.