This time last year, then Sunderland boss Phil Parkinson made what proved to be the best signing of his ill-fated tenure at the Stadium of Light by bringing in six-foot tall centre half Bailey Wright on loan for the remainder of the 2019-20 season.
The 27-year-old Australian international had come through the ranks at Preston North End, and his form there had seen him selected for his home nation’s 2014 World Cup squad and the Lancashire side promoted from League 1 in 2015. He then went on captained Lee Johnson’s enigmatic Bristol City side as it moved up the ranks to become Championship promotion contenders, making 71 appearances over four seasons including their run to the semi-finals of the EFL Cup in 2017-18.
However, a series of injuries in 2018-19 meant he lost his place in the Robins’ side, and the loan move to Wearside made sense for all involved. Wright was pleased to be coming to a big club with the prospect of being part of a side that would be surely challenging for promotion come the season’s end, and it was clear from the outset that, with his Bristol City contract expiring in the summer, the loan could be made permanent if he proved a success.
On signing on the dotted line before a photoshoot at the Academy of Light, Wright commented:
I’m delighted to be here and I’m looking forward to getting to work. I’ve played League One football before and I’ve been promoted, so I understand the qualities required to succeed at this level. I’ve had a few chats with the manager, and I want to be a part of what he’s building.
For Sunderland manager Phil Parkinson, this was an important signing as he looked to make us hard to beat following a terrible run of form at the end of 2019:
We are delighted to welcome Bailey to the club. He is an experienced player and he has captained Bristol City. We are looking forward to working with him. He adds competition at the back, which is something I felt we needed, and he is an excellent character. He will be a valuable addition to the group.
Parkinson wasn’t wrong in thinking that Wright would add character and quality to a back four that had lacked authority and leadership throughout the club’s time in League 1. He impressed with his aerial ability and calmness on the ball during in his first outing as Sunderland ground-out a 1-0 away victory on a beach of a pitch down at Tranmere Rovers, and Wright’s performances in a winning run during February earned him praise from his manager and fans alike, before an injury against Oxford away and later the coronavirus pandemic cut short a promising start to his Sunderland career.
With Wright sidelined and replaced by Alim Ozturk, the Lads’ form dropped off significantly - a stuttering win at home to Bristol Rovers, a draw at home to Gillingham and away defeats to Coventry and the Gas left Sunderland outside the top six on Points Per Game when the season was curtailed by the EFL.
However, as was expected, he signed a permanent deal at the Stadium of Light in August, ahead of the current season. Fate would see Wright reunited with his former manager after Parkinson’s departure, something Lee Johnson was keen to point out on his arrival at the club, and our record in the 20 games in which we’ve had the big man at the back is a pretty good - W10 D5 L5 - a 67% win ratio.
The Melbourne-born defender may lack a bit of pace, but his heading and ability to read the game to make vital blocking challenges to stop opposition attacks is unrivalled amongst our current crop of centre backs. Couple this with his attacking threat at set pieces (his scoring record of 2 in 20 is significantly better than Danny Graham’s) and it’s plane to see why he’s probably first name on the team sheet right now.