It feels like a lifetime has passed since we last saw Ellis Simms in a Sunderland shirt.
Crouched down on the turf at Reading, beating the ground with frustration as he fell victim to an injury that has kept him out of action for nearly seven weeks, he was a picture of despair as his night ended prematurely.
Without a doubt this was a big blow, not least because we’d already lost Ross Stewart ahead of the Middlesbrough game and Simms was our only alternative out-and-out centre forward option.
In a curious twist of fate, his unfortunate absence arguably benefited the team that night.
It forced Tony Mowbray to switch to a ‘false nine’ system, and the end result was that we eventually crushed the home team 0-3 with a superb display of attacking football.
Admittedly, his form had been erratic prior to the injury, perhaps summed up by his performance against Middlesbrough. Seemingly spooked by the loss of his strike partner, he looked somewhat lost as he tried to lead the line in the Riverside cauldron.
However, Tuesday brought good news.
Footage of Simms participating in an open training session at the Stadium of Light emerged on Twitter, offering us a much-needed boost after some turbulent times in recent weeks, and an injury list that has robbed us of a number of first-team regulars.
He apparently looked sharp and focused during the session, which can only be good news ahead of a tricky-looking quartet of upcoming games, during which he will hopefully play an increasingly regular role.
Indeed, during Thursday’s pre-match press conference, Mowbray struck a cautiously optimistic tone, emphasising that he wouldn’t overburden Simms as he makes his return, and stressing that his game time will be gradually built up, starting on Saturday.
It goes without saying that we have sorely missed a physical threat upfront in recent games, as Mowbray acknowledged on Thursday, and although Stewart’s eventual return will doubtless be hailed with cheers from far and wide, the fact that Simms is edging nearer to match fitness should do nicely in the meantime.
His physicality ought to keep opposition defences on their toes, and with someone to hold the ball up and make penetrating runs into the area, the issues that plagued us against Blackpool and Preston could be remedied.
Mowbray will have gotten to know Simms very well during his rehab, and you would hope that he has been given a clearer idea of what is expected of him, and how he can best be utilised in our system. As unfortunate as his injury was, it would’ve afforded him a chance to take stock, look at his game, and think about where he can improve.
When Alex Neil was in charge, he looked set to become a potent goalscoring option and a reliable foil for Stewart, and under Mowbray, the hope is that he can gradually rediscover his form and confidence and become a steady source of goals.
Given our multitude of creative options the service should be plentiful, and if he can get on the same wavelength as the likes of Jack Clark and Alex Pritchard things could be looking up.
I also have a feeling that Mowbray’s coaching style will bring the best out of Simms.
He is a young and developing player, and as we have already seen with the likes of Clarke and Dennis Cirkin, the head coach’s ability to guide and nurture these lads is there for all to see.
Simms ticks all of the boxes and there could be a very productive relationship in the making.
With some encouragement and perhaps a dash of tough love here and there, he could play a key role during the remainder of the season and prove any doubters emphatically wrong into the bargain.