Managing the expectations of our fans has almost been a full time job for those running Sunderland AFC in recent years.
We can all agree that the previous ownership failed miserably, but under Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, there has been a fair degree of pragmatism and the message has been that we are embarking on a marathon, and not a sprint.
In the days that followed our Wembley playoff final win in May, many fans were of the opinion that whilst a run at Championship promotion in 2022/2023 would be great, survival was the real target for this season.
Our flying start, driven by the likes of Ellis Simms and Ross Stewart, had many supporters dreaming about what might lie ahead, and even the departure of Alex Neil did not seem to hit us too hard.
However, the picture changed when Stewart picked up a pre-match injury at Middlesbrough, an injury that has kept him out of the side for over two months.
Without either of our two recognised centre forwards, the team has often struggled for form in recent weeks, but things are looking slightly more positive, and the hope is that Stewart will return post-World Cup.
However, if the disappointing performance against Cardiff wasn’t enough to stomach this week, talk from the boardroom is that contract negotiations have stalled and although there is a real desire for a deal to be agreed upon, the spectre of the ‘Loch Ness Drogba’ leaving is looming large.
We’re all aware that the club needs to be sustainable, and that we need to operate in the financial structure that sustainability entails. That’s where the club is asking the fans to put head over heart.
On the other hand, Stewart was a rare find.
We recruited him from Ross County, brought him to a club of significant stature, and he has repaid our faith with goals. He is a talismanic figure and whenever he is on the pitch, there’s always hope that however poorly we might be playing, if give him the ball he can score.
Stewart reminds me of a young Niall Quinn. He is deceptively good with the ball at his feet and is far more than simply a target to which we can lump the ball.
As we have seen in recent weeks, you can be a skilful side with the ball, but you always need someone who will stick it in the back of the net. There’s a reason why strikers are seen as the most expensive assets for a club, and for Sunderland, Stewart needs to be recognised as such.
It would be a major statement of intent if we can persuade him to sign a new contract, and a signal that we do have an ambition to retain the services of players who can take us back to the promised land of the Premier League.
Kristjaan Speakman has said that the club will only sell players if they feel they have someone lined up to replace them. With that in mind, if Stewart does leave, it would be a massive weight on the shoulders of whoever the club unveils as his replacement.
I wonder if the plan is to have a long hard look at some of the teams in this year’s World Cup, and to see if we can lure the next Asamoah Gyan to the Stadium of Light to temper the potential loss of Stewart.
I wouldn’t put it past the club to seek a replacement from one of the lesser nations in Qatar, which would fit with the current vision of buying young foreign talent.
For me, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, and Stewart should definitely be kept on Wearside.