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Sunderland v Bradford City - EFL Trophy

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Do the players suffer for Sunderland’s current status?

Do our current crop of players receive more criticism because the club are in League One? Phil West ponders on some of the conversations going on around the quality of Sunderland’s players this season...

Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

So far in this up and down season, the players have been the recipients of both glowing praise and stinging criticism as they have battled to find consistency.

Whilst the likes of Ross Stewart and Dan Neil have boosted their reputations in the eyes of the fans, there have been many players in the squad who, from week to week, find themselves nominated as the fall guy for poor performances and sub-standard results.

On Tuesday night, during our somewhat limp display against Oldham in the EFL Trophy, it was the turn of Leon Dajaku to find himself in the firing line. Others, such as Elliot Embleton and Benji Kimpioka also copped their share of the fans’ frustrations as we slipped to a defeat, but Dajaku was undoubtedly the recipient of the most vociferous criticism.

Perhaps the quality of his performance wasn’t totally unexpected.

Sunderland v Bradford City - EFL Trophy
Leon Dajaku’s form has been up and down so far at Sunderland this season
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Shoehorned into a position that he didn’t look comfortable in, the on-loan German’s performance was undeniably poor, as his lack of defensive awareness and lack of penetration going forward were both exposed.

In fairness, none of Sunderland’s players exactly sparkled on Tuesday night, and I did wonder whether they’d viewed the match as a mere distraction ahead of a big league game on Saturday, when Karl Robinson brings his Oxford team to Wearside.

Predictably, the socials were littered with comments that were almost comical in terms of the underlying rage, and I do wonder whether this is part of a bigger issue. Is criticism of certain players being delivered with particular venom simply because of our current position as a third-tier club?

Do fans see players smiling, giving interviews (Thorben Hoffmann’s brilliant insights to Kicker magazine, for example) and sharing Instagram posts as signs that standards are dropping, and that enjoyment and enthusiasm should be shelved, at least until we get promoted?

Sunderland vs Ipswich Town Sky Bet League 1
Thorben Hoffman
Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I’ve often wondered whether this current crop of players would receive less flak if they walked around with hangdog expressions, looking as though they’d rather be anywhere but Sunderland.

Going back to the not-too-distant past, you could reel off a host of names who pocketed the big wages & essentially phoned their performances in, doing the minimum they could get away with & showing zero interest in making anything more than a token contribution.

Nowadays, I don’t think there is a single player in our current squad who would fall into that category, and that is a relief.

Returning to Dajaku, I am convinced that Lee Johnson will persist with him, and continue to afford him opportunities to improve his game and make a more meaningful contribution. He is obviously still adjusting to life in the rough and tumble world of football at this level, but he clearly has something to offer (his goal away at Crewe was superb), and I certainly don’t think he’s a lost cause.

Saturday’s game against Oxford promises to be a real challenge, and if selected, it will be an acid test for him. In recent times, we’ve shown patience with several players who didn’t initially set the world alight when they first pulled on the red & white stripes, and perhaps we simply need to give Dajaku a similar benefit.

It might just be the making of him at this club.


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