In January 2011, when Darren Bent departed for Aston Villa, I was livid, and I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what was going on as a promising 2010/2011 season continued to unfold.
Bent was arguably the first genuinely top-class striker to don the red and white stripes in his prime since Kevin Phillips. He’d taken to life on Wearside successfully, and in only a season and a half, had offered tantalising hints that he was going to be the man to lead our attack for four or five years.
However, we had to make do with a mere half season of a Bent/Asamoah Gyan/Danny Welbeck triumvirate, something that could’ve been very exciting had it continued until the campaign reached its conclusion.
Eleven years later, for Bent, see Ross Stewart.
A talismanic striker and a player who has established himself as one of the most dynamic, versatile centre forwards we’ve seen in many a long year.
Since joining from Ross County, Stewart has given us so many memorable moments. He is adored by the supporters and it seems to be mutual: he has established a rapport with the fans and has never spoken in anything other than positive terms about the club.
However, his future remains a source of concern, with his current deal not far from its final stages and no breakthrough regarding an extension seemingly imminent.
As you would expect, Tony Mowbray has been fairly circumspect when asked about the situation, citing the desire of all clubs to ‘retain their best players’, but stressing that there has to be a ‘middle ground’. Fairly standard managerial speak, in all honesty, but enough to trigger more panic ahead of last Saturday’s game against Cardiff.
There is no doubt that Stewart’s contractual situation, and its eventual resolution, will represent the stiffest test of Sunderland’s new model to date.
For those who have not fully embraced the new way of operating, the simplistic view would be that the club is hellbent on financial prudence at the expense of footballing success, but it’s hard to blame them for keeping the finances on a tight leash. The days of the Ellis Short chequebook, of huge fees and minimal returns, are gone, seemingly never to return whilst this regime is running the club.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to yell ‘PAY HIM WHAT HE WANTS’, but in the high-stakes world of negotiations, there is a lot more nuance.
The real-world value and security of contracts is questionable, and players are often easily led by their agents. Stewart comes across as a salt-of-the-earth pro, but how ambitious is he, and does he feel that we could fulfil those ambitions?
The link to Rangers, for example, seems to resurface quite often, and in many ways, you can see why it would make sense.
On the other hand, as he approaches his peak years, would swapping the Stadium of Light for Ibrox guarantee him the success he doubtless craves? Are his international aspirations factoring into the equation as well?
On the other hand, giving the fans a reason to get excited by retaining key players is a valid expectation.
Prior to his injury, Stewart had taken to life in the Championship extremely well and was looking every inch a player who belongs at this level. Without him, we’ve been stripped of not only a potent source of goals, but an all-round frontman who can defend effectively, link play, and is crucial to our preferred style of football.
If he were to depart, Kristjaan Speakman, a man who can do no right in the eyes of some supporters, would find himself under intense pressure once again- regardless of how handsome a profit we made.
Is Stewart irreplaceable? Could we find another rough diamond somewhere in the market who could take his place, and what kind of fee could we expect for him if we did decide to cash in? Come January, strikers of his calibre are likely to be in high demand, and surely anything close to £10 million would be appealing.
Given Speakman’s track record since he arrived, perhaps there would be reason to be encouraged, but it would take some serious appeasement to keep everyone calm should a parting of the ways occur- and a disenchanted fanbase is exactly what we don’t need during this crucial season.
I’m a huge fan of Stewart’s and would love to think he will stay and spearhead our progression through the Championship, but the feeling of despair when a player departs is something I’m sadly used to. They come, they go, and the club moves on.
If a deal can be thrashed out and the big Scot does remain a Sunderland player, wonderful, but if not? We’d simply have to knuckle down, push on, and try to find another up-and-coming striker who could fill the sizeable void that the ‘Loch Ness Drogba’ would leave.