As we pass the final furlong marker of this year’s League One chase, Sunderland now find themselves two points outside of the playoff places but with things still very much in their own hands. Seven games remain, 21 points to play for; and all of the teams with games in hand have caught - removing the theory and speculation that goes with it.
It really is crunch time for Sunderland, it’s true that Ross Stewart has been our crutch, but with Jermaine Defoe retiring, Broadhead’s return short-lived and Pritchard struggling for fitness, there is a space in the squad for a hero - someone to drag the lads back into the playoffs and beyond.
Could Patrick Roberts be the one to step forward to wear the cape and rescue our season?
Rewind to January 21st 2022. The phone notifications ‘ping’ with the customary “scarf pic” and the announcement that Sunderland have signed Manchester City winger Patrick Roberts. A name that raises many an eyebrow and a quiet buzz hums around the socials amongst the Football Manager elite. A world away from the type of signing in the past, Sunderland take on the remaining 6-months of his Manchester City contract and it’s seen as somewhat of a coup for the club - after all, there aren’t many 17-year-old lads who can say Manchester City were willing to pay £12m for them.
Despite not being able to achieve the impossible in booting Sergio Aguero out of the City starting line-up, players with that much talent or potential tend to not end up at Sunderland until they are 35 and have lost the appetite for football.
Roberts is far too young to be considered a journeyman, but having made appearances in six leagues across four countries by the age of 25 sees him more well-travelled than most footballers already. Experiences in the Premier League, Champions League, Scotland, Spain and France can only be a benefit to our latest push to try and get out of League One.
The Portsmouth game came too soon to be available for selection, so the first chance fans would get to see our new attacker would be the trip to Bolton… Oh dear.
There are not many more depressing ways to make your debut for your new club than to be coming on at 4-0 down away to Bolton. He could be forgiven if coming off the pitch he was thinking “What have I done?”.
Could there be a bigger juxtaposition than the images of Roberts coming on for Sergio Aguero against Spurs, and coming on for Leon Dajaku at the University of Bolton Stadium side-by-side? I suppose in both cases his team were getting a pasting and so the pressure that would normally come with a debut appearance will have dissipated.
Roberts will have been left further scratching his head at the decision to leave France as no sooner had we lost 6-0 to Bolton, one of the figures who would have persuaded him to make the move to the Stadium of Light is relieved of their duties.
In the games that followed, many fans (myself included) would start to wonder what Roberts had to do to get a start. Was it a simple case that lack of game time dictated that minutes had to be restricted to get up to speed? Possibly… but it’s hard to make that case when limited to 45 minutes of football over the next 6 games. Doncaster came and went, ending with the dreaded “SNU” tag (Sub Not Used); then appearing for a maximum of 17 minutes for the trips to Cheltenham and Wimbledon and the defeat to MK Dons. We speculate as to why City sent him to play elsewhere so many times, or why he couldn’t really get a game in France - was there something we fans weren’t seeing in training? Maybe he’s just not able to live up to the hype that saw him labelled “Mini Messi” at 17?
I was one of the unfortunate cursed souls at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium in February. I sat in the cold and endured a dour, pathetic 2-1 defeat to Cheltenham with the Chuckle Brothers in charge. No Sunderland player could leave that stadium with credibility intact bar two - Jay Matete… and Patrick Roberts.
At 1-1 with the side playing terribly, looking fragile and devoid of confidence, Roberts once again replaced Leon Dajaku - this time with 15 minutes remaining. Disaster hits within three as Alfie May fires past Patterson and we’re 2-1 down. You could feel the deflation in Sunderland players amongst the air of inevitability. Despite this Roberts continued to spark something for us.
Playing on the wide right, he would be one of the few wanting to take the ball. He ran confidently at the Cheltenham defence trying to carve out the chance to salvage something from the trash that had been served up before now. Cheltenham’s left-back will have not had a more difficult 10-minute spell of defending to do and such was the threat Roberts was posing, Cheltenham doubled up on him - trying to force him into the corner where he could do as little damage as possible.
It was clear to me then that we REALLY needed to see more of him.
In recent weeks we’ve seen Roberts arrive on the scene in a Sunderland shirt. In his first start against Fleetwood, we saw a player desperate to make a positive impact on the game. Jack Clarke will over-shadow him in this game thanks to his brilliant 91st-minute strike, but his performance shows to me at least that he has the character and the undoubted ability to drag this team across the line in a playoff push.
Both he and Dan Neil effectively saved our season in coming off the bench to score against Crewe, and he was head and shoulders above any other player on the pitch in the 0-0 draw against Lincoln. On another day, the Lincoln game would have ended in a 4-0 win, and Roberts would have had a hand in all of them.
For me, there is no coincidence in the correlation that the last three games have seen improved results and performances, just as his number of minutes spent on the pitch has increased. Both in and out of possession the work rate and drive to succeed hasn’t been evident in anyone more than in Roberts since he has been given his chance.
I’ve seen him sprint 30 yards back into our half to win possession and immediately launch a counter attack. I’ve seen him back defending to head away crosses and corners, all in addition to the attacking job he’s tasked with - cutting inside, getting shots away, setting up teammates.
Clearly Man-of-the-Match, the club put out a brilliant “highlight reel” of sorts for him after that Lincoln game and if anyone is in doubt of the regard I’m putting on him, I’d recommend they go and find it.
The Stadium of Light has seen very few home players with the ability to pick up the ball and run at the opposition so confidently. Not only excelling at beating a defender on either side, but pairing it with the ability to deliver an end product. His goal against Crewe and the way he set up chances for Jack Clarke against Lincoln are mere glimpses of what he is capable of. What is already clear is that here we have a player who is obviously better than the standards of League One. But unlike many, has the humility and character to not think it beneath him. Whilst it would have no doubt been amazing to have played across the continent in the top leagues in Spain and France, Roberts’ story has a sadder subtext.
Signing for Manchester City as a 17-year-old and finding some seven years later that you’ve only made one league appearance for your club across that time could dishearten anybody. Moved from pillar to post over his late teens/early 20s, even the 2.5 years at Celtic (which delivered three SPL titles and two league cups), whilst celebrated achievements, would have only gone some way in papering over the cracks chiselled by continually being considered surplus to requirements at your parent club.
Roberts appeared on the SAFC Unfiltered podcast last week, discussing his time abroad with Danny and Frankie and what it was like to be labelled the next big thing when Manchester City came knocking. He spoke about how he has never really felt like he belongs having been out on loan season after season, and how he uses it for motivation.
Motivated is exactly how I would describe Roberts when he has represented Sunderland so far. When he signed, he essentially had six months to prove his worth, and when you see him play or hear him speak, this message comes across loud and clear.
A player desperate to find somewhere to belong… with a club desperate to get back to where it belongs. Potentially it’s a match made in heaven, and as long as the club can equal his obvious ambition to showcase his talent above League One, Patrick Roberts could have a long and successful time at Sunderland.
In many ways, his career is yet to really begin, almost unheard of for a player just turned 25. He’s here to earn it, and with the promise he has shown in his brief spell with us so far, he has the capability to drag us back into the playoffs and beyond - back closer to the level his talent (and our club) should certainly be.
He can’t do it single-handedly of course, everyone must play their part. However, I’m pretty certain that ultimately, the success of our season will be intrinsically linked to the amount of time Patrick Roberts is on the pitch.