During the overhaul of the playing squad last summer, it was obvious that, in order to move into a new era, we were targeting a certain kind of player. If they were young, dynamic and with the potential to improve the team as well as progress as footballers, they would, in theory, be a perfect fit for the new model that was being implemented.
Of the summer 2021 intake, it is fair to say that the players have affected the fortunes of the club with varying degrees of success.
At one end of the spectrum, there is a player like Nathan Broadhead, without whom we lost a major piece of our attacking jigsaw during the winter, and at the other end, there was Frederik Alves, a physically robust defender who, on the face of it, seemed like a good fit, but made a minimal impact before returning to West Ham.
Such is the often-unpredictable nature of opting for a crop of largely-unproven players, that not all will succeed instantly, and some will, with time prove to be the wrong fit.
To illustrate this point further, you simply have to look at Callum Doyle as a prime example of how players’ fortunes can differ as they make their way in the cut & thrust of League One football.
In August and September, the Manchester City loanee was a future England captain, and by January, he was, in some people’s eyes, a positionally-suspect plodder, someone who was out of his depth in men’s football.
Indeed, I’ve had countless Twitter discussions with fellow fans during recent months, during which we’ve talked about the imbalanced nature of the squad, and how it was seemingly tilted too far in favour of youth, a point about which you could argue long and hard.
One player from last summer’s transfer window who has fascinated me more than most, however, is Dennis Cirkin.
As an England age-grade international signed from Tottenham’s youth setup, Cirkin seemed like an exciting recruit, someone who could fill a problem position, was comfortable on the ball & could really show his worth on a weekly basis.
Indeed, when he switched to Wearside from London, many Tottenham fans spoke highly of him, complimenting his athleticism and his ability to carry the ball forward from defence, attributes that seemed to fit perfectly with Lee Johnson’s vision of how he wanted the team to play.
On Saturday, Cirkin turned in his best performance for some time, with an impressive display as a wingback as Sunderland drew 0-0 with Charlton at The Valley. It was extremely heartening to see him looking so rejuvanated, physically and mentally, after what has been a truly torrid period for him.
He didn’t tear the house down in south London, by any means, but he was composed, solid, and largely unflustered as he went about his business. As a step towards rebuilding his confidence and form, it was significant, and might prove to be the watershed moment for him as the season builds towards its conclusion.
Cirkin’s downturn in form, post-Christmas, wasn’t pleasant to watch. He certainly wasn’t alone in losing his way, but it did seem to be more obvious than with many of his teammates. Fitness issues had plagued him for some time before, as well as a personal bereavement suffered last year, and as results turned sour, the subsequent managerial change wouldn’t have helped, either.
It was obvious that, from his arrival at the club, Lee Johnson had a lot of faith in Cirkin, as he did with many of the squad’s younger players, and during the games that followed after Johnson departed, Cirkin often looked lost & completely unsure as to what he was doing or how to end his slump in form.
There are few things more worrying as a fan than watching a player drift his way through a game, trying his best but falling short regardless, and there are always two schools of thought when it happens.
On one hand, it would be very easy to say, ‘He’s a well-paid footballer who’s been afforded a great chance at a big club, so he needs to get on with it’, but on the other, these players are human beings, many of whom are in a new environment, and patience is often needed.
For Cirkin, as with his teammates, there has obviously been a period of adjustment as Alex Neil has implemented his own methods and retrained the squad to work within a different style of play. The signs are that it is starting to have an impact, and you would certainly hope that Neil is building a rapport with each of his players on the training ground, as well.
With our season very much in the balance, it is reassuring to see individual players starting to take steps in the right direction. If we are to finish the season on a high, they will have to ensure that they do continue to improve, because next season’s league status depends upon it.