The news came yesterday that Denver Hume has some chance of playing again this season... but it’s by no means an absolute certainty.
This means that we are unlikely to have a resolution to the problem position of left back any time soon.
Jake Vokins was dropped for the game against Fleetwood, with Lee Johnson again giving Callum McFadzean a place in the starting line-up.
Vokins, drafted in on loan from Southampton as cover in the January transfer window, has yet to impress when he has started, and has been substituted in each of his three league games.
Lee Johnson changed the formation of the starting line-up on Saturday against Burton Albion with a three man central defence, in part to offer some protection for Vokins and allow him to get forward to show his attacking prowess.
To some extent it helped, as Vokins showed some good touches going forward, but Johnson was still not happy with the defensive side of his game and the Sunderland technical area could be heard ‘offering encouragement’ to him to get closer to Burton danger man Johnny Smith and ‘stop him cutting inside’ (PG version).
With underwhelming performances from McFadzean and Vokins, fans are counting down the days until Denver Hume returns, but has Vokins been written off too quickly?
He has parallels with Denver Hume that run much deeper than just them both being attacking left backs.
Go back to the start of last season. Jack Ross was still manager, Brian Oviedo and Reece James had just left in the summer, which led to Ross promoting Hume to the starting 11 at the start of the season.
At that point he had only made a handful of starts in the first team and had never been out on loan to another club. His main football experience had come from playing for the under 23’s.
Under 23 football is not of a comparable standard to league games, not even League One or League Two. It does not have the same physicality or pace, and does not ready a player for the higher levels of positional awareness and concentration required in a league game. This is why clubs like to send their most promising players out on loan to other league clubs if they cannot risk them in their own first teams. It provides a finishing school before they are ready to test the prodigies in their own first team.
Fans will remember that when Hume first came into the first team, he struggled with the defensive side of the game. He was often caught out positionally, and lacked concentration at times.
That is until Phil Parkinson became manager, and introduced a five man defence.
With the insurance of an extra defender at the back to drop in and offer cover for him, this gave Hume licence to attack and rapidly evolve into the player that we have missed.
No player flourished more under Phil Parkinson than Denver Hume.
That also could be written as, ‘no player flourished under Phil Parkinson apart from Denver Hume’, but that is a different matter.
What has all this got to do with Jake Vokins, a player who we are told came to Sunderland with Premier League pedigree?
Well, this is the first loan spell he has had anywhere in his career.
The Premier League pedigree amounts to one game for Southampton in 2019-20. Much like Denver, the only experience he had before he came into the first team is of under 23 football and much like Denver he is encountering the same problems of positional sense and staying close to his man.
The question for Sunderland is, do we persevere with him?
After all, what does a team that is looking to up its game and put together a run of form have to gain from continuing to play and try to help develop such a raw player, particularly one that is not our own, and one who will return to his parent club along with any experience and improvement to his game.
What I would argue is this.
We cannot count on Denver Hume returning this season and the other candidate for left back, Callum McFadzean, has had enough games now to show if he is the real deal. He hasn’t impressed.
Left back remains a problem position which opposition teams are regularly looking to exploit.
If Lee Johnson perseveres with Vokins and he starts to come good, then Sunderland will benefit too.
Of course if he fails to improve, then he cannot play forever and will have to be pulled from the first team at some point.
Surely though, he deserves more than three games to prove his worth?