One of the things that really excites me about the Sunderland team Lee Johnson and Kristjaan Speakman have assembled this season is that none of us know just how good the players – collectively and individually – can be.
It’s a stark contrast from the past few seasons. With the best will in the world, we knew where the ‘ceiling’ was for the likes of Max Power, Charlie Wyke, Josh Scowen and Chris Maguire. We knew they were good League One players but probably wouldn’t be able to cut it in the league above. We knew that, collectively, on their day they could compete with the best League One had to offer. But unfortunately, their day didn’t come along too often.
This season, we’ve brought in a number of young players including Thorben Hoffmann, Niall Huggins, Callum Doyle, Dennis Cirkin, Nathan Broadhead and Leon Dajaku, while Dan Neil, Elliot Embleton and Ross Stewart are all having their first experience of any prolonged first-team football at Sunderland.
While they’ve all started well when given the opportunity, the likes of Broadhead, Huggins and Dajaku are having to bide their time and wait for their chances to come.
And when they get their chances, and the more opportunities to play football they have, the more exciting things are going to get.
Dennis Cirkin’s performance on Saturday was the perfect example of what I’m talking about.
Since signing from Spurs, he’s put in a number of decent performances, and he’s continually improved as he’s adjusted to life away from Tottenham. He’s not only living in a new area and settling into a new club, but he’s also playing first-team football for the first time in his career – and on Saturday he was absolutely superb.
Defensively solid, he looked strong going forward and played a critical part in Winchester’s goal that sealed the win.
It makes you wonder – was that Cirkin at his ‘best’, or is there more to come? If that was his ‘ceiling’ then we’ve got a cracking player on our hands. However, I don’t think it was. I think he’s only just getting started – and if I’m right we could have one of the best fullbacks outside the top flight.
Of course, we’re going to have to wait another week or two to see him in action again – a nasty clash of heads on Saturday will rule him out of a game or two due to concussion protocols, but that will only serve to give another opportunity to Niall Huggins.
While he’s been signed to play right back, Huggins has actually played more football during his career on the left, and seems to be a ready-made replacement, particularly given Denver Hume’s lack of match fitness.
Callum Doyle’s been immense, while Thorben Hoffmann is another who’s quickly finding his feet – Saturday’s clean sheet was his first for the club, and he looks like the type of commanding, athletic goalkeeper we need to help shore up the backline.
Again, Hoffmann is improving game by game, and there’s undoubtedly a lot more to come from the lad – as there is from the likes of Neil, Stewart, Embleton and Dajaku, who looked to have ‘something different’ when he got some time from the bench on Saturday.
All of these players are young, are improving, and we simply don’t know just how good they’re going to be. What a difference that makes!
Credit has to go to the coaching staff as well as the recruitment team. It’s one thing bringing the right players to the club, another to develop them – and the coaching staff are evidently putting in the hard work on the training field. You only had to listen to Dan Neil on the recent SAFC podcast interview with Frankie Francis and Danny Collins to appreciate the detailed work that Lee Johnson and the team are investing into individual players.
The only youngsters I have concerns about at present are Fred Alves and, more particularly, Nathan Broadhead. A strong performance and goal against Wigan were only good enough to get Broadhead a place on the bench against Bolton and, despite Ross Stewart getting little change from the Bolton defence, Broadhead remained on the sidelines.
Broadhead and Alves certainly didn’t give up sitting on a Premier League bench to be an unused League One sub, and Lee Johnson needs to find a way to get Broadhead, in particular, into the team at some point soon. Broadhead is a player I believe we have a good chance of signing permanently should the stars align, and he needs an opportunity soon.
Easier said than done, of course.
All in all, though, there’s so much promise and potential in the squad and the club it’s difficult not to be enthused. Bolton probably gave us our sternest test of the season, but we just about got through it. To follow up the Fleetwood disappointment with two wins and two clean sheets speaks volumes about the character of the team as well as the technical ability it possesses.
Further challenges await – starting with Cheltenham tomorrow and Portsmouth on Saturday – but if this team continues to develop, both individually and collectively, as they have done over the first six weeks of the season, then the sky’s the limit.
For the first time in a number of seasons, I’m genuinely looking forward to watching us play football again.
And how nice is it to feel that way?