It is no overstatement to suggest that Sunderland AFC faces a multitude of questions at the present moment.
As the season enters its final stages, thoughts are already turning to questions such as:
‘Who stays and goes during the summer?’ and;
‘Is Alex Neil the right man, even if we don’t get promoted?’.
One question I believe can be addressed with an eye on next season, however, is the issue of captaincy, and I won’t beat about the bush here: I believe that the notion of a ‘leadership group’ was one of the worst ideas that Lee Johnson tried to implement during his time at the club, and that it should be consigned to the scrap heap as soon as this season is over.
I’ve always been a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to such matters, and whereas a ‘leadership group’ may work in sports like rugby, I think football demands a different approach – particularly for where we are at this moment in time.
I feel very strongly about this, because in 26 years of supporting the club, I have seldom, if ever, seen a captain whose influence on matches is as minimal as Corry Evans.
Sometimes, if you don’t really notice a player’s presence during a game, that is not a bad thing, because it might mean that they are simply going about their business efficiently. But in the case of the Northern Ireland international, it is a problem that has been noticeable for some time.
After the recent home game against Crewe, I described Evans as having ‘hidden’ during the game. I did so reluctantly because the ‘cowardly’ label is something I do not like to affix to Sunderland players, but when you see your skipper so reluctant to exert his influence, and seemingly unsure as to how to galvanise and rally his teammates, what else can you say?
When he joined the club last summer, Evans, brother of ex-Sunderland defender Jonny, seemed to tick a number of boxes. He was a well-travelled and experienced player, with international caps under his belt, and in theory, he felt like a good fit to slot in alongside the multitude of younger players we had recruited.
Unfortunately, it certainly hasn’t worked out that way, because Evans’ time on Wearside has been a story of patchy form and a litany of disappointments.
It isn’t as though he hasn’t been given a fair chance, either, as both Alex Neil and Lee Johnson have both afforded him plenty of game time during the season.
The big problem is that Evans, for the most part, is utterly anonymous. Whereas previous skippers like Kevin Ball were inspirational, take-no-nonsense warhorses and more recent captains like Dean Whitehead combined physicality and guile with good qualities on the ball, Evans simply doesn’t bring enough to the table.
When was the last time, during a tense passage of play or when the momentum was swinging away from us, that you thought to yourself, ‘Thank God, Corry’s playing, and he’ll do what needs to be done to make sure we get through this game’?
At the moment, it feels as though we are looking to at least six or seven different players for inspiration before Evans comes into the equation, and that is never an ideal place to be.
Our lack of a midfield ‘enforcer’, a long-running issue in itself, seems to have been addressed significantly with the arrival of Jay Matete (granted, he isn’t the finished article yet) and with Dan Neil on the comeback trail, the fact that Alex Neil continues to persist with Evans is something of a mystery.
Perhaps, if you were to look at the other side of the argument, Evans has simply been inhibited by the responsibility of leadership and his game has suffered as a result. Maybe he is something of a reluctant captain, a man trying his utmost and with the club’s best interests at heart, but is simply hitting a ceiling and is unable to do any more.
He wouldn’t be the first Sunderland player of recent times to be shoehorned into a role that he wasn’t naturally suited to, and I do wonder whether someone like Bailey Wright or even Luke O’Nien would be more suited to the position. Wright’s no-nonsense approach and O’Nien’s ability to lead by example have both been evident this season, and that is no surprise.
Regardless of the outcome of this season, our first-choice midfield pairing, for next season, should comprise Neil and Matete, and the captain’s armband should be designated to one player.
Forget leadership groups and the delegating of responsibility to a core of senior players. Establish who our one totemic figure is, ensure he is suited to a leadership role, and let’s get back to a traditional structure – one that has rarely let us down in the past.