In January 2021, Sunderland signed a midfielder from Forest Green Rovers. It’s fair to say few of us knew very much about him, if anything at all, but the immediate concern shown by many fans - wrongly, as things turned out - was that he was a player signed from the fourth tier of English football.
Carl Winchester was the first player brought to the club after Lee Johnson arrived as Head Coach, and was a signing that we needed when you looked at the players already at the club. Our midfield options were limited - remember Grant Leadbitter, Josh Scowen and Max Power? - and his Football League experience meant signing him made perfect sense.
I admit that I was sceptical of his signing, but I believe in actually giving players a chance before writing them off.
As it turned out, he would feature fairly regularly during our charge to the cusp of automatic promotion, and he put in some stellar performances in spite of having to compete for a place in the team with some well-established members of the squad.
Our hopes crumbled and died with a run of just one win in our last eight matches, and during one of these outings, Winchester bagged his first goal for the club.
It was fairly insignificant, in a 1-1 draw at home to already relegated Northampton Town on the final day of the regular season, but it was a deserved moment for a player who had faced a whole load of criticism before he’d even kicked a ball for us purely based on where we had signed him from.
The new season - Lee Johnson’s first full campaign as our Head Coach - would bring all-new challenges for a club more eager than ever to taste promotion.
Winchester has played (and continues to play) a huge part in our season thus far. He was forced into playing full back as soon as the pre-season games began, mainly due to injuries and a lack of available options - a task which many a Sunderland midfielder has performed in the past, but few have done it so well and so effectively as he has.
Never one to shy out of a tackle, the Northern Irishman has proven himself as a solid defensive player, as well as one who can get forward and contribute effectively. His mini-purple patch in August/September resulted in three goals, all in winning causes.
He was wedged in at full back early in the season, but he quickly became a player we would struggle without.
Dynamic players are vital to all clubs in a season where you play at least 51 games, and in Winchester we have a player who has answered every question that has been asked of him.
On paper, Winchester has played 40 odd matches and scored four goals, but on the pitch and in real life, he has brought a personality and energy which has been the backbone of our good form this season.
It has been said often in the last few weeks that the current Sunderland side has more team spirit than most in the last two decades.
A big factor in this is because we possess big personalities in the squad like Winchester - he’s a player who thoroughly enjoys his time on the pitch, and someone who seems to thrive under this new approach to how we play football.
His return to training is a welcome one, not just because he is another name ticked off the injury list, but also because of the lift he can bring to the matchday squad.
With the second half of the season now underway, I feel confident in saying that Winchester will have an important role to play between now and May.