In just over a month’s time it’ll be a year since the game that marked Alex Pritchard’s breakthrough performance in a Sunderland shirt.
Hailed as something of a coup when he joined the club in the summer of 2021, his early months on Wearside were a tale of frustration as injury and illness prevented him from establishing himself in the first team, and we rarely saw the best of him as a result.
Combined with rumours of attitude problems and inconsistent form at his previous clubs, this led some to question why we’d actually signed him in the first place. He was ‘too slight’ and not suited to the hustle and bustle of League One, or so the argument went.
However, when Oxford arrived at the Stadium of Light on December 4th, the ex-Norwich and Huddersfield attacker grabbed his opportunity with both hands. He was supreme that day, and although the 1-1 result was frustrating, it was obvious that his class was beginning to show and he rarely looked back from that day on.
One year on we are in an uncannily similar situation, albeit in a different league and with different expectations.
Pritchard’s current form is not sparkling, and in recent games his body language has often been that of a player who is frustrated and desperate to contribute to a greater degree. Whereas previously, things looked natural and effortless, they currently seem forced and it feels like he is trying too hard to contribute - with little to show for it.
That said, writing him off would be hasty at best, and foolhardy at worst.
A number of poor set-pieces and errant shots, not to mention the absence of the trademark incisive passing that defines his game, is being used as evidence that he’s not up to scratch, but this is yet more proof of the amplified scrutiny that every footballer is under nowadays.
However, the two people who really matter are the man in the dugout and the player himself. Will Tony Mowbray be panicking? I don’t think so.
The head coach clocked up his eight hundredth game in management on Saturday; he’ll have seen countless players experience dips in form, and as one of the club’s senior pros, Pritchard will know exactly what he needs to do.
As his appearance on last week’s club podcast demonstrated, he is an intelligent footballer and a player who became a leader last season without really trying.
He has never shied away from the challenge of representing this club and embracing the expectations of the supporters, understanding that the club is embarking on a long-term plan and that patience is required from everyone.
With that in mind, things may start to turn in his favour and in the first instance, the return of Ellis Simms to the team ought to be a positive development.
When on form Simms occupies defenders, keeps them on alert, and can help to open up the pockets of space in which he thrives.
He is never going to be the kind of player who tears around the pitch at 200mph, flying into tackles and covering every blade of grass, but his best attributes - balance, vision, and the ability to drop a ball on a sixpence - could flourish once again now that we have an orthodox striker to call on.
Whilst Simms’ return ought to help, once Ross Stewart is fit and available I suspect that Pritchard will start to rediscover his touch once again.
Somewhat frustratingly, we probably won’t see them in tandem until after the World Cup, but the thought of getting on the ball and threading passes through for the runs of Stewart is the kind of thing that will doubtless spur Pritchard on.
With Jack Clarke becoming a potent and reliable threat from out wide and Amad showing signs of becoming a useful presence in attack, Pritchard conducting things from the middle could really give Sunderland the cutting edge that we have been lacking recently.
One thing is absolutely certain: we are not short of creative options at this moment, and that is no bad thing.
The days of relying solely on one player to conjure up a moment of magic are gone, and it is long overdue. Pritchard’s current form may not be what we would like it to be, but with the likes of Clarke looking ever more impressive, hopefully that can spur him on to become the game-changing presence that everyone knows he is capable of becoming.