When Carl Winchester arrived at the club in January from Forest Green Rovers, I think it would be fair to say that expectations from Sunderland supporters of what he could and would eventually bring to the table were relatively low.
After all, he was a League Two midfielder who was just about to turn 28 - most fans expected him to come into the squad as a backup option; a face that Lee Johnson knew well and that would at the very least give him a voice in a new dressing room, which we know from hearing various accounts from various players at various clubs can be vitally important whenever a manager walks into a new job, trying to win over a dressing room filled with strong personalities.
And, to be fair, that’s pretty much all Winchester was last season. He was clearly behind Max Power, Josh Scowen and Grant Leadbitter in the pecking order, and having come here fairly low key, most people appeared fine with that.
With the benefit of hindsight, though, I can’t help but wonder whether the team might have benefitted from him play ahead of those players, because the evidence from this season so far suggests that what we’ve got is a very good player - a technical midfielder capable of playing a far more impressive brand of football.
Perhaps Winchester - and Dan Neil, and Luke O’Nien - needed that gaggle of experienced ‘leaders’ to leave the club in order to grow into their new roles. Perhaps they were only ever going to be able to show their true worth to the side once the elder statesmen of the group moved on, and those spots in the side became available.
Winchester hasn’t even really had a proper chance to showcase his ability in central midfield, even this season - though when he has played there, he’s been great.
It’s at right back where he’s truly shone - and had we signed him as a right back this summer, we’d all be jumping for joy about how good he is.
That said, there’ll be a time where we need to bring Niall Huggins into the side in his natural position, and Winchester should definitely be considered as a starting player in his preferred position.
I can’t really fault any of the lads that have played in the middle this season. Dan Neil has been a revelation, Luke O’Nien has added some much-needed energy, legs and determination to an area that has often been lacklustre, and Corry Evans looks the real deal, and capable of playing at a higher level.
So the competition in that position is fierce, but I think Winchester has truly earned the right to feature there - and for that, we’ve got to give the lad credit.
He could have taken the huff because he’s been played out of position, but he’s used it as an opportunity to prove himself. I wouldn’t be rushing to move him from right back, but when the time comes he should be given the chance to show what he can truly do at the base of our midfield.
Hats off to him - that’s precisely the kind of attitude that I want to see from our players. It’s very easy to hide and shy away from the responsibility, but Winchester knows as well as we do that he’ll never play for a bigger club than Sunderland.
He has to take his chance, because success here will mean so much after a career of slogging it at much smaller clubs further down the food chain. He’s clearly got the ability to play at a club like ours, and he’s proven that - now’s the time to truly show what he can do.