With no senior men’s team game taking place last weekend, there were more eyes than usual trained on Sunderland’s youth side (and the ladies team, hopefully).
Those who visited the Stadium of Light to take in the under 23’s clash with Leeds United on Sunday would have been rewarded with a sight that should make Sunderland fans everywhere excited - that of Arbenit Xhemajli on a football pitch.
The Swiss-born Kosovan signed for Phil Parkinson’s Sunderland in the summer of 2020. His arrival on Wearside felt like a breath of fresh air, and a step away from the usual kind of underwhelming signings we’d made since dropping into League One.
At 6”3, Xhemajli was a solid addition at centre back in an area that was in dire need of strengthening. In Jordan Willis and Bailey Wright we had, and still have, two players who are prone to injury. He had a positive pre-season, putting in a particularly good showing away at Gateshead, but has only made a solitary competitive appearance for the lads.
That was against Aston Villa Under 23s in the Pizza Cup - and Xhemajli had a relatively quiet night as we ran out 8-1 winners; the quality of the young Villa side summed up by the fact they let both Will Grigg and Danny Graham score.
Sadly for Arby, a month after his competitive debut on Wearside he was ruled out for the rest of the campaign; and then some, as he picked up an injury on international duty.
As Xhemajli began the very long road to recovery, it was probably easy for him to slip under the radar. Yet with hindsight, it was probably a rougher time for him than others in his position would have endured.
Following his selection in last weekend’s U23s match, someone popped a tweet online outlining how he’s actually had a very rough start to life in England, and it struck a chord.
He picked up a serious knee injury within six weeks of moving to the new country, he’s most likely had difficulty seeing family and friends due to coronavirus travel restrictions and it’s taken him over a year to be able to get back onto a football pitch.
During his time in England, most things socially were off limits due to the pandemic, and by not being able to even get onto the training pitch, the chance to work alongside his teammates was limited further.
During the pre-season just gone, Xhemajili neared the end of his time on the sidelines. With Jordan Willis suffering a setback on his own long-term injury, we were in need of some reinforcements in the centre of defence.
We’ve all seen and enjoyed Callum Doyle take to life at Sunderland like a duck to water, and the gradual return of Xhemajli is adding to our already impressive squad depth.
A first team start may still be some time away, but even just stepping onto a football pitch to play any kind of football may have at one point felt like something that was a long time away for the Kosovan.
Once Xhemajli is available for the first team, he will be in alongside a wealth of quality centre backs. Picking two, or three, from him, Doyle, Wright, Flanagan and Alves might prove to be tricky, but the depth is on a level that we haven’t had in that position in a very long time.
Arby will end up playing a big role at some point for us this season, but seeing his first league appearance (which will hopefully sooner rather than later) following the 12 months he’s had will be very special.