Sunderland’s star striker, Ross Stewart, is closing in on fitness, with fans hoping he’ll hit the ground running to help provide competition as well as extra firepower for the upcoming Christmas period.
But while we can’t wait to have him back at his best, could that ultimately cost us his services in the long run?
I know plenty has been said of Stewart and equally how Sunderland must become a sustainable club, which in the longer term will mean being a selling club – I get that! In living memory, isn’t that what Sunderland have been ever since the collapse of the Bank of England club? We either nurture the young or become the last stop-off and final payday for faded stars. It’s why those of us who saw Kevin Phillips in his prime, alongside a born-again Niall Quinn feel privileged to have been a part of the club at that time.
I don’t want to go over stuff that has been previously illustrated about Ross Stewart, so instead will use a couple of comparisons to make my point. Because the winds of change as we approach the January transfer market seem increasingly familiar. That to me, is as foreboding and could prove just as costly as the other instances I’m about to recall.
The first moment I’m about to use is somewhat ironic. It is as close to our current predicament as we’ve been in recent times.
The irony comes because if we’d held onto this player, even for the remainder of that season, we would never have seen Ross Stewart in a Sunderland shirt. I am of course referring to the young Wearside forward and supernova, Josh Maja. After Sunderland’s worst period in decades, Maja quickly established himself as our one real shining light in our long-ago, opening League One season.
However, failure to hammer out contract negotiations soon enough, meant that by the time January came, the Sunderland owners were under increased pressure to make a snap decision on the forward’s future.
By December he had scored as many goals as Kylian Mbappé (you might have heard of him), so was the joint top-scoring teenager in Europe, albeit Josh Maja was playing in League One. Some may say, he was unlikely to continue that form throughout the season – fair point. But the difference his presence and ability made to that Sunderland side, was immeasurable. In the tightest matches, he had already proved to be the difference so often.
I still say, his sale was the biggest mistake of that period and held the club back years, until our promotion in May. Despite the bravado at the time, there was no replacing Maja with a genuine like-for-like forward. He was a player who could carve out his own opportunities rather than needing chance after chance presenting five yards out as was Will Grigg’s requirement – at least while at Sunderland.
Fact is, despite Maja’s loss, we missed out on automatic promotion by fine margins. A handful of goals (even 5 or 6) would have got us over the line that year. It’s the reason I contend that Grigg was more costly to Sunderland Association Football Club than Jack Rodwell in so many respects.
The fear is that the sale of Stewart now could have similar consequences to Sunderland’s trajectory. Again, he’s a forward who can eke out his own chances and is proving clinical at the level he is playing at. Not to mention, he looks as though he could still make a step up a level, that would be when his real price tag could shoot up. If we really want to do things differently, we need to take the Maja saga, as it was, as wake up call.
Many fans may also suggest, we are not a one trick pony as we were back then, and there is little panic if we lost the Loch Ness Drogba.
So, how about looking at another instance in our past that has shaped our recent history?
‘Sunderland have dispatched a high-flying London club after a comfortable second-half display. We’ve done it with the assistance of an exciting young on-loan forward from Manchester United and our current talisman looks the part while also getting on the scoresheet again. All the while, arguably our star striker is out injured, and people are starting to question his future at the club.’
I’m not talking about the victory over Millwall last weekend - I’m remembering the situation around Darren Bent following the outstanding win at Chelsea shortly before his exit for a Premier League rival. Bent might have remarked recently that he left the Black Cats to allow Asamoah Gyan his chance to shine. But retrospect paints a very different picture for Sunderland fans.
We could say, those players and times have very little bearing on where we are now. There are some, small similarities between the club then and now but that’s it. Then, as now, Sunderland was closer to the top six than they were the relegation places. But following Bent’s shock departure, the decline began and come April we were battling for points to avoid a relegation dogfight in the last few weeks.
Our display against Wigan eased those nerves and luck on the final day gave us a tenth-place finish inflating Steve Bruce’s ego, at a job well done.
Papering over the cracks, I’d call it.
What happens with Ross Stewart between now and the end of January could determine a lot for the football club. Not just our fate this season but give us a sense of how ambitious the club really are and how much they believe in their own abilities. Those who forget history, are destined to repeat it, and I hope we don’t see a repeat of the two January sales I have just recalled. Our saving grace though could be that Bent had hit his top valuation, the fee for Maja was a considerable amount for a teenager, which could help sustain the running costs of League One club.
Whereas, if we’re talking about a similar £3m - £4m fee for Stewart, to be potentially sold to a rival (with Rangers out of the running) how can that be beneficial to us? Surely, even by triggering the final year on his contract, if he continues to fire on all cylinders, he must be worth closer to double figures come the summer.
That to me would make more sense, we have more time to replace him and more to invest in a replacement. We know how highly the club rate him, and some believe he can step up to Premier League level, presumably with our tutelage which could help put the club on the maps for coming prospects – win, win!
But personally, I’d like to see him in the Premier League in Sunderland colours, not next year perhaps but soon… let’s see if we learn our lessons?