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Bristol City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship

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The importance of being Ellis: How big a role can Sunderland’s new number #9 play this season?

Pitched into the heat of battle at Ashton Gate, the on-loan Everton striker scored two goals and was a major threat all day. How big a role could he play for us this season?

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

As debut performances go, this was as memorable, as encouraging, and as impactful as any that a Sunderland player has made in the past twenty years, and that is not hyperbole.

Over the course of ninety minutes against a useful and well-drilled Bristol City side, Ellis Simms, who has joined us on a season-long loan from Everton, offered ample proof that goals may not be as hard to come by this season as many feared, and maybe, just maybe, potentially missing out on Nathan Broadhead might not be a season-altering setback.

Bristol City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

It might be stretching credibility to claim that his inclusion in the starting eleven on Saturday was a ‘surprise’- after all, if you’ve got what you think could be a potent weapon at your disposal, it is always tempting to use it as soon as you can, but could even Alex Neil have predicted the impact that the young striker would make?

He didn't even get off the bench in the opening game against Coventry, as Neil resisted the urge to throw him in too soon, but one week later, he found himself tasked with leading the line in Sunderland’s first Championship away game since 2018. Not an easy task, by any means, but one that he rose to with aplomb.

Suffice it to say, what Neil saw would doubtless have left him hugely impressed, but he is a manager who not only sets high standards for the players he selects, but also manages young players with a savvy and a duty of care that sometimes borders on ruthlessness, as Dan Neil could attest to.

To that end, Simms will doubtless have to show patience as well as consistency of performance this season, and he may also find himself being rotated and rested when necessary, but if the old maxim about taking your chances when they arrive is true, it seems extremely likely that he will become one of our key players.

His two goals on Saturday were both of the highest calibre, and they demonstrated that this young striker possesses the kind of all-round game that we have long been looking for in our attackers.

For a tall, rangy forward, he appears to be far more than just a blunt instrument, and throughout the game, he showed the kind of pace, intelligence of movement and deftness of touch that opposition defences hate and supporters love.

Bristol City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

His first goal, an emphatic finish from the edge of the box, showcased his formidable shooting power, and his second, a calm-as-you-like finish through the legs of Daniel Bentley, demonstrated his hold-up play and calmness under pressure.

Indeed, had Bentley not made a brilliant save shortly afterwards, Simms would’ve left the West Country with the match ball, as well as the accolades of 3,000 travelling supporters ringing in his ears. As it was, he had to settle for a brace of goals, the satisfaction of running the home defence ragged, and a newly-acquired status as an undisputed fan favourite.

Simms’ contribution on Saturday also offered proof that the goalscoring responsibility will not fall solely on the shoulders of one man this season, as it so often did during 2021/2022.

Ross Stewart will certainly contribute in the goalscoring stakes this season (his own goal on Saturday was a trademark header), but finding a partner who can compliment his strengths and ease the burden on him will be crucial, and who is to say that we haven’t found that player?

Bristol City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Neil tweaked his starting lineup in order to field a duo that was wryly dubbed the ‘SAS’ in Lee Howey’s fabulous co-commentary, and it worked brilliantly. The more they play together, the greater their mutual understanding will become, and that in turn will benefit everyone.

In addition, when you factor in the possibility of Alex Pritchard, Dan Neil, Elliot Embleton, Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts providing the service and hopefully chipping in with goals themselves, we ought to be able to forge an attacking unit that should be more than potent enough at this level.

With Nathan Broadhead, at the time of writing, seemingly on the verge of joining Wigan, it feels like a safe bet that other transfer targets are lined up, and if Simms and Stewart are going to be our main frontmen this season, the evidence of Saturday suggests that Kristjaan Speakman and Stuart Harvey might have struck gold once again.

Much hard work lies ahead for the former Hearts and Blackpool man, but his confidence ought to be brimming after a debut like this, and as he breezed through a laid-back post-match interview, you got a sense that this is a guy determined to seize the opportunity and show our supporters exactly why he is so highly rated by the blue half of Merseyside.

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