After arriving at the club on a free transfer last summer, it was an interesting first season at the Stadium of Light for Corry Evans.
Following an impressive debut, his form rapidly declined, leaving many fearing the worst – was he another player from the Championship who would fail to live up to his billing, much like Aiden O’Brien and Conor McLaughlin before him?
In addition, as had been commented on by supporters of his previous clubs, he also seemed to be perennially injured, further hindering his ability to cement his place in the team.
Prior to Alex Neil’s appointment as manager, I think most, if not all Sunderland fans, had written Evans off, and would have been happy not to see him on a team sheet again. This continued during the early weeks of Neil’s tenure, with a regular feeling of dread each time the team was released.
However, something unexpected then happened – Evans stepped up, big time.
I think many were caught off guard by this, and I’m not sure you can point to one game in particular that represented his turning point. Instead, it was during a busy run of fixtures when supporters took a step back and saw the impact he was having on the team.
Such a turnaround in form felt like a comeback of Lazarus proportions, when ‘just another failure’ became a lynchpin of Neil’s style of play, and allowed us to get the job done during each game.
What interests me is exactly how Neil coached Evans compared to Lee Johnson, resulting in a string of much-improved performances.
I think a large part of it was due to Neil’s willingness to allow Evans to play to his strengths and get back to basics.
Playing in a midfield anchor role allowed him to sweep up in between the lines of defence and midfield, and to drop deeper into the backline when needed. He used his experience and class to anticipate and intercept danger effectively, whilst making himself readily available to receive the ball and play it simply.
All in all, Evans developed a knack for being in the right place at the right time, whether in attack or defence. Finally, we were seeing the Championship player we had last witnessed in his first game for the club, and from that point on, he never looked back.
Evans became the captain we desperately needed him to be, and it is no coincidence that his form and influence were both hugely important during the run-in and our eventual promotion from League One.
So what does that mean for the coming season, where the first challenge will be to mix it with a higher standard of opposition?
I truly believe that Evans will be pivotal during our first season back in the Championship. He has played the majority of his career at this level, and his experience and nous will be a major factor, particularly if we have our sights set higher than merely competing.
His willingness to maintain his discipline and put in the hard yards will allow us to get forward and get the job done in attack, and he can also provide much-needed support to what will likely be another inexperienced squad, be that in terms of age or the number of games played in the second tier.
Granted, Evans won’t be alone in that, with the likes of Danny Batth, Bailey Wright and Alex Pritchard also likely to provide exceptional leadership, but as skipper, I expect him to set the standard.
Like it says in the opening video, Evans is the captain now.
He might not have started off that way, but during the final months of the season, he demonstrated exactly how valuable he can be.
You can point to other question marks, such as how Ross Stewart will fare or how effectively Anthony Patterson will step up, but I have little doubt that the continued influence, calmness and experience of Evans will be one of the defining features of our Championship return.