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A ‘rotten core’ no more: Sunderland’s senior pros are setting a new standard

At the heart of our solid start to life in the Championship is a group of players who are leading by example and providing superb guidance, writes Phil West

Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

During our perennial struggles against relegation from 2013 to our eventual plunge through the trapdoor in 2017, one of the phrases associated with Sunderland AFC was ‘rotten core’.

We all know how it went: manager after manager spoke about the need to overhaul the culture of the club, to make the players appreciate what playing for Sunderland meant, and to eradicate what was seen as a wretched sense of underachievement.

From the madness of Paolo di Canio to the detached arrogance of David Moyes (who was, funnily enough, just as rotten as the ‘core’ itself) many tried, and largely failed, to bring about the change in mentality that was so obviously needed.

Sunderland v Everton - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

OK, there was a brief flirtation with some no-nonsense professionalism under Sam Allardyce, but our eventual relegation was as attributable to the flaws in our mindset as it was a failure at boardroom level over many years.

However, now that those turbulent years are fading into the rearview mirror, I think we can safely say that the ‘rotten core’ has been eradicated, hopefully for good.

On the field, Sunderland AFC of 2022 is now a club where the right values: hard work, commitment to the cause and selflessness, can be found, and will be rewarded.

It’s taken four years, countless attempts at a reboot, and a substantial amount of turbulence, but where once we had a group of highly-paid and regularly underperforming senior players, Sunderland’s spine is now comprised of a group of lads who appreciate the chance to play for the club, and who don’t take it for granted.

Huddersfield Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by John Early/Getty Images

Danny Batth, Luke O’Nien, Corry Evans, Alex Pritchard, and Lynden Gooch (with others potentially included, depending on how you define it) is a group of players that, by any standard, have been the perfect core on which we can rely as we settle back into life in the Championship.

Under Lee Johnson, much was made of the so-called ‘leadership group’ that he established as head coach, but it’s somewhat ironic that without really trying, we’ve now got exactly what he was looking for, albeit with a boss in Tony Mowbray who is clearly attuned to the attitude that these lads embody.

With a squad comprised of many players who are taking their first steps in English football, the importance of the players mentioned can’t be overstated. It’s not just about what they do on the field. It’s about guidance, setting a good example, and showing the new arrivals exactly what being a Sunderland player is all about.

In a similar fashion to the 1990s, when Peter Reid opted for a mixture of youth and experience, his senior men could always be relied on. For every Michael Bridges, you had a Kevin Ball; for every Thomas Sorensen, there was an Andy Melville. If standards were in danger of slipping, a word would be had and the issue would be resolved.

Okay, the balance within this squad isn’t perfect yet, and the upcoming January window is pending, but so far there are signs that the players we do have are gelling nicely, with the team spirit clear for all to see.

As captain Evans has not only set the example this season but has also turned around his own Sunderland career in spectacular fashion.

Huddersfield Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

From being a fairly anonymous midfield presence at the turn of the year, he’s now a totemic figure, and a player around which so much revolves.

Without him, we lack a real conductor in the middle of the park, and that’s not to downplay the talent of the likes of Dan Neil and Abdoullah Ba, either, simply that Evans knows this league and consequently, understands how to control things in a key area.

Elsewhere, Batth has been nothing short of immovable in defence, and Pritchard and O’Nien, a stalwart of the club since 2018, have gone about their business with efficiency and professionalism. It’s all a far cry from years gone by when egos were rampant, salaries were sky high, and results were, frankly, abysmal.

Much is made of the word ‘culture’ within sporting parlance- perhaps too much, but if we use the term in relation to Sunderland, the outlook is very positive.

The egos have been weeded out and the wasters are no more. There is a clear tone being set by the more experienced players in the squad, and that has undoubtedly played, and will hopefully continue to play, a major role as we continue to make a positive impact in this division.

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