So, after much clamour, and quite a few false starts and disappointments when international squads have been announced, Ross Stewart has finally broken down the door and gained himself a place in Steve Clarke’s group.
Stewart’s call up to the Scotland squad, for their upcoming games against Poland, and then Austria or Wales, is a fully merited reward for a player without whom we would almost certainly be staring down the barrel of a mid-table finish. As it is, due in no small part to his superb return of 22 goals in 38 games, we are still in with a shout of promotion.
There is, of course, an inevitable element of caution, and maybe even trepidation, amid the joy at seeing another Sunderland player receive international recognition.
During the international break, there will doubtless be many fingers crossed, all over Wearside and beyond, when Stewart is away with Scotland. Given our current position- scrapping for a playoff place and with little margin for error during the final seven matches- the thought of losing our primary goalscorer is borderline unthinkable.
A long-running injury curse, that hangs over the Stadium of Light like a cloud & has scuppered us on so many occasions, has shown no signs of being exorcised this season, as the absences of Alex Pritchard and Nathan Broadhead have shown, and hopefully Stewart returns unscathed and ready to contribute as we build towards the end of the season.
The bigger picture, of course, is that with international caps comes greater exposure, which in turn often leads to transfer speculation, something that, assuming we fail to get promoted come May, Stewart is bound to be the subject of.
Given how positive an impression he has made during his time at Sunderland, all the signs indicate that he could easily make the transition to playing at a higher level, and that he would be an asset to any team. He is still young enough to continue to develop and improve his game, and I would be very surprised if Championship managers aren’t casting admiring glances towards him.
After taking his time to adapt to English football following his move from Ross County, Stewart has evolved into a genuinely top-quality striker. More dynamic & mobile than his predecessor, Charlie Wyke, Stewart has become the focal point of our attack, and a player with whom the likes of Broadhead have formed a potent combination during the campaign.
He is also a true workhorse of a centre forward, willing to run the channels, and hassle & harry the opposition when we don’t have the ball and are seeking to keep the pressure on. In short, he is a player we depend on enormously, and for whom there is a lot of respect and admiration from our fanbase.
Forgive me for temporarily becoming a harbinger of doom as I attempt to play devil’s advocate. I know the thought is a deeply unpleasant one, because he is an immensely popular player, as well as a top-quality striker, but it is not an exaggeration to claim that we could be entering the final stages of Ross Stewart’s career in red and white.
If, like any savvy pro, he harbours ambitions of furthering his career & testing himself at a higher level, Stewart will be already be planning ahead and wondering about what the summer might bring.
In the short-term, he will undoubtedly be desperate to play his part in securing promotion for us this season, because I really do believe that he has an affinity for the club, and would stay in a heartbeat if we were to secure a return to the Championship, but if we don’t? The bids are likely to come rolling in, and it would feel like an inevitability that he would move on.
Another season in League One would require the cutting of more cloth and the balancing of the books, and there is no doubt that Stewart’s value has skyrocketed since his arrival. Fantasy transfer numbers are always fun to bandy around, and it isn’t out of the equation that bids not far south of £10 million could be in the pipeline, such is the modern market and the inflated fees often paid for fairly run-of-the-mill players.
Suffice it to say, Alex Neil will doubtless be aware of this, and I suspect he’ll be even more motivated to achieve promotion, and therefore keep Stewart on the club’s books for 2022/2023 and beyond. The players will also know how valuable Stewart is to the club, and I hope they use his potential departure as a spur to ensure that the season doesn’t end in disappointment.
In the meantime, I really do hope that he makes a positive impression on Steve Clarke, can help Scotland get what they are looking for out of their upcoming fixtures, and returns fully fit to the SOL for what might be one final, crucial goalscoring spree.