Chris Maguire, all things considered, has probably been my favourite Sunderland player since dropping into the third tier.
Sunderland fans are suckers for mercurially talented players - probably because we don’t sign too many of them, and even when we do, they don’t tend to hang around for long!
He’s given me - us - some unbelievable memories, and I think in years to come - hopefully when we’re in the Premier League, looking back at our stint in the third tier as a seminal moment in the history of this football club - he’ll be regarded as a bit of a cult hero, and celebrated as one of the rare shining lights at this level when all is said and done.
He’s scored some unbelievable goals, and played his part in some memorable performances.
When you consider the complete lack of fanfare surrounding him when he first arrived on Wearside, it’s amazing that he’s even still here after three years. I’m not even sure that Chris himself expected to hang around as long as he has, particularly given his age, and the way his spell with the now-extinct Bury ended.
I remember speaking to Bury fans around the time we signed him, and they were all completely baffled as to how and why Maguire had even ended up on Wearside. Maguire had ‘phoned it in’ at Gigg Lane to an extent - playing in a struggling side and not getting paid on time clearly had an effect, and Maguire himself might admit that it’s probably the unhappiest that he’s ever been as a footballer.
To go from that to playing for a Sunderland side just relegated out of the Championship must have seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime.
Maguire’s talent has never been questioned, but his ability to stay at the peak of his fitness and to keep motivated perhaps has. I’d surmise that’s why he’s never really kicked on beyond the Championship in his time as a player - I think a younger Chris Maguire, in the right team, probably could have played at the top end of the Championship, or in a plucky promoted Premier League side. Those days are behind him, and I’d guess Maguire himself has wondered if he could have perhaps done more as a younger man to advance his career.
And obviously, as fans, we only see what happens on the pitch on a matchday. The bit we don’t see is the day-to-day, and I have to wonder whether that’s why Maguire hasn’t played as much as he probably should have under Lee Johnson.
Johnson spoke after Saturday’s game about how Maguire’s opportunity came on the back of some good training performances, and reading between the lines I’d say that was a hint to us all who have been asking the same question: Where the hell has Maguire been?
I totally understand that, and Johnson’s not daft. He can hardly come out and throw Maguire under the bus by telling the world he’s hard to motivate in training. He’s very much aware of what the man can do in front of goal, and that he’s got quality in abundance.
The dilemma that I imagine Johnson has been wrestling with is probably over whether he can allow a player who underperforms in training to get opportunities ahead of other players in the same position who are grafting their nuts off every day. What message would that send to the other players? What would it do to the squad morale?
Honestly, I think that now, with Maguire essentially playing for a new contract - either at this club or elsewhere - Johnson has to unleash him, and perhaps relax his standards a bit.
His cameo on Saturday once again showed us what he’s capable of.
He’s one of very few ‘match-winners’ in our squad - he’s capable of absolute brilliance in tight, close games where one goal will nick it. He’s played in huge play-off games in the past for us and been the difference (who can forget the two legs against Pompey in 2019?).
And, if rumours are to be believed, the play-offs could be contested in front of actual supporters - and Maguire is a man who thrives playing in front of a boisterous, loud crowd.
He’s the man you want on the pitch when a loose ball drops just outside the opposition penalty area. He’s the man you want stood over a free kick twenty yards out from goal.
And, like on Saturday, he’s the cool head you want taking a penalty in a pressure situation.
Johnson’s mind may already be made up on Maguire’s future, and the player himself may now be aware that his future will lie elsewhere next season, but that has to be used to our advantage.
Chris is playing for his future - let him prove himself all over again. He might just make the difference, and be the man who sends Sunderland to the Championship.