I’d like to apologise in advance for sounding like a harbinger of doom in this article. After all, the last week has been pretty positive for Sunderland. After bringing in Alex Pritchard, Corry Evans, and Callum Doyle, our new home strip was released, and then we eased to a 2-0 victory against newly-promoted Hearts as our pre-season preparations continued smoothly.
Right. That’s that glowingly positive stuff out of the way, and onto a more concerning issue.
As I write, I am absolutely convinced that, on the 7th of August, Will Grigg’s name will feature in either the starting XI or the list of substitutes for the opening league game against Wigan. Despite a barren two-and-a-half-year spell at the SOL, during which he has played for three different managers, and has scored nowhere near the amount of goals that his transfer fee suggested he would provide, the Northern Ireland international seems to have been granted a reprieve after spending the latter half of last season on loan at MK Dons.
Of course, I could be completely wrong, and we might wake up one morning to discover that another club has decided to take a punt on a player whose career is at a crossroads, to put it mildly, but as we all know, unexpected surprises are par for the course at this club.
What I’ve found interesting, and slightly baffling, this summer, is the standards by which we seem to be judging some of our players, particularly those who were out of contract and being tempted by offers from elsewhere.
Charlie Wyke? Useless. Thirty goals? Who cares? Peddle him. Ditto Luke O’Nien, whose contract extension was met with predictable dissatisfaction from those who long ago decided that he was a player who ‘smiled a lot’ but contributed very little else. Even Denver Hume, who missed a large chunk of last season and is yet to recommit (wages are the stumbling block, so we’re told), seems to have lost the faith of many fans.
In contrast, Grigg seems to have gotten a remarkably easy ride. Very few people seem to be demanding that he is moved on with any real forcefulness, and phrases like ‘if he starts scoring, the past two years will be forgotten’ have been bandied around with regularity.
I wish I could see it like that, but I can’t lie: it does stick in my throat that he remains on the club’s payroll, and yet a player like Chris Maguire, for example, was told at the end of last season that his services were no longer required.
Okay, Maguire was out of contract, whereas Grigg’s deal is not yet up, but has the possibility of buying out the remainder of his contract ever been discussed by Kyril Louis-Dreyfus? Are they trying as hard as they can to move him on?
For quite some time, there has been a demand for a ‘clean break’ from the Stewart Donald era of ownership, and yet we still find ourselves trying to solve the puzzle of a player who, in many ways, came to embody Donald’s ultimately failed tenure as owner. A high-stakes, panic buy that simply didn’t pay off, despite the initial excitement.
For a long time, I’ve been of the belief that attitude is equally as important as talent in this league, and that players who lack the kind of qualities that can’t be gauged with a computer algorithm will be found out. The arguments about ‘not playing to Grigg’s strengths’ have been around for God-knows how long, but ask yourself this: has he ever looked like a player who has embraced the challenge of leading the line at Sunderland? I don’t think he has. And I’m really not convinced that such a mindset is possible to change.
When he arrived in January 2019 (against his better judgement, as we’ve subsequently discovered), he had a chance to step into Josh Maja’s shoes, become the spearhead of our attack, and acquire hero status by scoring the goals that would fire us to promotion. It didn’t work out then, and there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest it will work out now, despite the ever-chirpy Johnson’s backing of him. It would be an act of footballing witchcraft if Grigg could turn around his Sunderland career. Possible, of course, but so improbable as to almost verge on fantasy.
Replacing Wyke’s impressive contribution from last season will not be an easy task, and having seen much-coveted players like Joe Pigott and Scott Fraser move to other League One clubs, the pressure is definitely on to secure the services of a striker, or strikers, who can fill that gap. If Grigg does remain and can contribute next season, it would be one of the most remarkable turnarounds in form any Sunderland player has ever accomplished.