Confession time: The first time I got a good look at him over ninety minutes, I wasn’t convinced by Aji Alese, and I didn’t know exactly where he fitted into the new-look Sunderland team.
After the initial excitement and intrigue at the fact we’d struck a deal to bring the highly-rated West Ham defender to Wearside, our limp exit from the EFL Cup at the hands of Sheffield Wednesday, a game in which Alese played, planted a little seed of doubt in my mind.
Not a single Sunderland player caught the eye that night, but Alese looked somewhat ill at ease and didn’t exactly mark himself down as an automatic selection when everyone was available.
Since that game, however, the picture has changed, and with impressive results.
Tony Mowbray has taken over the reins at the Stadium of Light, Alese has been afforded a chance to establish himself as a starter, and the former Hammer has suddenly become one of our most important players.
Called into action to replace Dennis Cirkin after he went down with an injury suffered at Middlesbrough, Alese has been a dominant, reliable figure in our backline, and with every game, he is showing the class and the composure that convinced us to strike a deal for him.
Indeed, it is becoming easy to see why many West Ham fans were so dismayed when he left, so influential is he becoming in the red and white stripes.
Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Preston was a different kind of test, the type of game where organisation and discipline were key and composure was vital, and although we couldn’t find the breakthrough goal, the clean sheet was not to be sniffed at and we stuck to our task admirably.
Granted, there were one or two shaky moments when we dithered on the ball a fraction too long or tried to be slightly too intricate when playing out from the back, but overall, it was a drama-free afternoon.
In every department, Alese excelled, making a crucial goal-line clearance in the first half and going about his business with authority. His composure on the ball and willingness to stride forward and participate in attacking moves was pleasing, too.
Pre-season, Sunderland’s defensive depth was an area of concern, but after eleven games, the picture is certainly looking more encouraging. The fact that Bailey Wright, who was so crucial to last season’s playoff success, is now on the fringes, tells its own story.
When Mowbray gets a clean bill of health from his medical staff, he will be able to call on an array of quality players and competition for places will be strong, which is exactly what we need during a gruelling season.
In addition to Cirkin, who will have to work exceptionally hard to regain his place, there is a hope that Daniel Ballard may not be all that far away from returning, and with the likes of Trai Hume and Niall Huggins still on the sidelines, there are some very talented players who have yet to really figure.
In addition, Danny Batth is borderline undroppable as well, and despite worries about who would make the step up to the Championship, the question has been answered emphatically.
It must be said that since being pressed into action as a stand-in central defender, Luke O’Nien has done a fine job, doubtless aided by the presence of Batth, and has seldom let the team down.
This leads to the question of exactly where he slots in when Ballard is fit, but these are all positive dilemmas for Mowbray to have. It will eventually afford us the luxury of being able to rest players when necessary, or change our defensive formation when needed.
Slowly but surely, the picture is starting to take shape, and we are getting a far better idea of how this team is developing in all three areas of the pitch.
We have an array of exciting attacking options, we have a wealth of skilful midfielders who are more than capable of keeping a game ticking over and creating openings, and we are edging closer to being able to field a defence that can be a match for anyone on their day.
That will ultimately be the foundation on which a successful season can be built.