For me, it has to be Alex Pritchard.
You could make a case for a number of players - Aiden McGeady, Chris Maguire and Ross Stewart are the others that spring to mind - but for me, Pritchard has been a real difference-maker this season. In the biggest game we’ve ever had at this level, he collected the man of the match award on the big stage at Wembley.
Pritch credited Lee Johnson with convincing him to drop to this level last summer, and both we and Pritchard himself should be thankful for that. He’s rebuilt his career on Wearside and I imagine there won’t be a team in the Championship next season (well… bar maybe Huddersfield!) who wouldn’t snap your arm off to have Pritchard in their own squad - he’s that good.
Tom Albrighton says…
It seems crazy to say it, but Bailey Wright is, without doubt, the most important signing we have made whilst we’ve been in League One.
From the moment he arrived, Bailey tapped into what it is to play for Sunderland and invested himself fully in the club. Shifted around the backline and filling in when nobody else could or would, Bailey has always given his absolute all in a red and white shirt.
Like many, he’s had dips in form but has always worked his hardest to fight through them. Even when he wasn’t the first name on the team sheet - which now seems unimaginable - Wright still gave everything when called upon.
What makes the Australian so influential is his experience and his popularity.
Rarely has a defender been more popular both with the fans and his peers. His infectious enthusiasm, his ability, his never-say-die attitude and his willingness to stick his head in where it hurts has rubbed off on his teammates, as was demonstrated during our promotion celebrations.
Wright has quietly gone about his business but has always conducted himself in an exemplary manner, and in a league (and at times a team) where professionalism isn't always present, he has led the way. G’day, mate!
Andrew Smithson says…
We have signed some good players during our time in League One, and the last year and a half has seen a pleasing shift in recruitment in general, but I’m going right back to the start for our most influential signing.
Luke O’Nien has his detractors, but I think he has been a really important player for us.
Scouting hungry players from lower divisions and giving them the chance to kick on is something we needed to do, and he is the perfect example of that.
He seems to appreciate the opportunity to play for Sunderland and he brings a mentality that counts for a lot. The lad is always trying to improve himself, and is happy to do anything he can to help the team, even if it means playing through the pain barrier.
His approach puts some of those we’ve had in the past to shame. We can all think of ex-Sunderland players who barely went through the motions, and now we have this guy who, by all accounts, needs to be reigned in on the training ground so that he doesn’t push himself too much.
I do wonder if some of the stick he gets is because he is often ‘too busy’. Indeed, I think I may even remember him saying as much himself. He knows he can be a bit overeager in certain moments, and has learned to ease off slightly and give himself a break.
For me, though, the club needs that energy and desire, and I reckon his managers would agree.
O’Nien can be on the edge of the opposition box one moment, and then clearing the danger at the other end the next. He never hides, and it’s pretty obvious that he likes winding the opposition up - not a bad thing, given some of the gamesmanship we’ve experienced since 2018.
I think there is more to his game than just effort and legs though- he has often been a goal threat and he reads the game very well.
After a tough start to his Sunderland career, he has dug in and been a consistent performer over the last four seasons. There was a marked improvement in the team’s performances when he returned from his shoulder surgery this year- not solely down to him, I admit, but it did mean that he was fresh for the run-in.
He got through some graft in the playoff final at Wembley, and his reactions to those late block tackles that he threw himself into was great to see.
Other players have come and gone whilst we’ve been at this level, but having endured these difficult seasons along with the rest of us, and played a major part in helping Sunderland to get out of League One, I’m keen to see what O’Nien can do in the Championship.