There was an unmistakable and perhaps overdue feeling of a ‘changing of the guard’ at Sunderland last week.
As the afterglow from the playoff final continued to burn brightly, and the retained list was released, we closed one chapter, whilst beginning to look forward to what will hopefully be a bright future.
As we bade farewell to Aiden McGeady, a man who often carried the mantra of ‘talisman’ during his time at the Stadium of Light, we are blessed that we can call upon several players who could step into the role vacated by the Irishman.
For long periods of Sunderland’s tenure in League One we were perilously close to being a one-man attacking outfit, but we can now rely on a plethora of creative options to make things happen, one of whom deserved his moment of glory at Wembley as much as anyone.
As we saw on a regular basis last season, Alex Pritchard is an incredibly talented footballer.
His skill, spatial awareness and ability to open up the pitch with a single pass are supreme, and he exudes the kind of confidence that we all love to see in a Sunderland playmaker. He has also had a noticeable influence on his teammates, with the likes of Elliot Embleton and Patrick Roberts undoubtedly benefiting from working alongside such a player.
Indeed, Kristjaan Speakman may have been criticised for some of his moves in the transfer market, but he undoubtedly struck gold with Pritchard.
Initially a slow-burner when he arrived at the club last summer, he took time to get up to speed, but following a brilliant performance against Oxford the former Norwich and Huddersfield man never looked back as he became a key cog in the red and white machine, both under Lee Johnson and latterly Alex Neil.
Post-Wembley, I sold Pritchard woefully short by awarding him a post-match rating of seven (for which my Roker Report colleague Rich Speight gleefully skewered me on a subsequent podcast!) but having viewed the game back, his performance, which was filled with incisive passing and sharp movement, was a joy to watch.
If we are pinpointing certain figures who will play a major role in Sunderland’s 2022/2023 Championship campaign, Pritchard would be very close to the top of the list, and you wouldn’t bet against him embarking on a personal mission to prove that he has what it takes.
In a league where the football is often open and free-flowing, and time on the ball is more plentiful, he ought to be able to thrive, and I have no doubt that he has the mentality needed to make the step up.
There is a great joy to be found in watching players who play football for the love of the game, and with the kind of boyish enthusiasm that goes back to their days in the school playground. Pritchard undoubtedly belongs in that category.
Whenever you see him in action, you are watching a footballer who takes pleasure in making a killer pass or setting up an attacking move, and for whom personal glory is secondary to the team’s success.
Pritchard’s selfless, team-orientated approach is also indicative of a wider cultural shift at the club, and is further proof that the so-called ‘rotten core’ that bedevilled us for so long has now been replaced by a new sense of togetherness.
The days of signing talented players with poor attitudes and a sense of entitlement, who simply saw Sunderland AFC as an easy payday, are gone. Instead, we are now recruiting players with the right qualities - commitment, no egos, and a willingness to dig deep when needed.
Another thing to admire about Pritchard is his composure and articulate manner during interviews.
In the aftermath of Sunderland’s Wembley triumph, he was interviewed by Sky Sports and offered some fascinating, cliche-free insights into the team’s mindset during the buildup to the final.
In terms of his connection to the club, Pritchard reminds me of Kevin Ball. He is not a native of Wearside, but he clearly understands the expectations of the fanbase and is not afraid of the challenge of representing this club.
Much was made about the likes of McGeady supposedly maintaining standards over the past four years, and Pritchard is someone who can certainly carry that baton next season.
Big players deserve the chance to showcase their talent on the biggest stages, and having played a major role in helping Sunderland escape the swamp of League One, Pritchard should be someone to keep a close eye on next season.
He is one of the club’s most influential figures, and I get a sense that there is a lot more to come from him as we aim to make a positive impression in the Championship.