In an era where footballers are media trained within an inch of their lives, to the extent they are told to “say something like”, we are left with the “urrrms” the “we go again next week”, and the “it’s all about the three points”, cliches.
The truly great footballing personalities are a symbol of a bygone era.
When even a flicker of character is displayed in a post-match interview and a player goes slightly off-piste, deviating from the robotic, formulaic answers, they are heralded as the second-coming of Maradona or Gazza.
While those of larger-than-life disposition have frequently proved to be divisive figures in the dressing room (Joey Barton, Mario Balotelli, and Craig Bellamy to name a few), our dearly, and recently departed Carl Winchester (he’s not dead, he’s just joined Shrewsbury) was anything but.
Fondly nicknamed “Winiesta” by the Sunderland faithful, the Northern Irishman was evidently loved by his teammates, and admired by the supporter-base alike.
As everyone’s attention was firmly transfixed on the arrivals gate at Newcastle Airport on deadline day, Winchester slipped out the back door of the AOL.
His departure was swift, surprising, and unassuming. Superlatives that could feasibly be used to describe his time at the club. A consistent, dependable player, whose time on Wearside was as much a surprise to him as it perhaps was to us. His charmingly unassuming manner, and understanding of what it meant to play for a club the size of Sunderland always stood him in good stead at the SOL.
Following his exit, several players paid tribute to him and the impact his off-the-field charisma, and magnetism had on them and the squad - Luke O’Nien stating he was the “heart of the team," and with Danny Batth and Lynden Gooch amongst a lengthy list of well-wishers.
From the twilight of our fruitless Premier League tenure up until our play-off misery in the 20/21 season, Sunderland has adopted the habit of bringing in mercenaries and demonstrating a truly abysmal judge or character.
A primary issue was an ever-present air of toxicity in the changing room.
However, with the acquisition of Winchester in the January ‘21 transfer window, bar the Lincoln-sized blip, the togetherness, general likability, and morale of the squad improved game-by-game. The feel-good factor and irrepressible attitudes of the players were reflected in their performances right up to the beginning of this season.
Unquestionably, the upturn in form was massively down to he who shan’t be named, but Winchester was ostensibly the glue that held the dressing room together.
He forever had a spring in his step and was reportedly, quite the practical joker.
While he may initially have been a sign of where we’d fallen to as a club, a signing from (at the time) League Two Forest Green, he quickly established himself as the type of character we had been missing all these seasons languishing in England’s third tier.
A man who had the power to unite the squad through laughter, and who was undoubtedly an instrumental force in getting his fellow teammates through the eye of the storm following Lee Johnson’s sacking.
A sturdy, versatile, and passionate player on the pitch, and a loveable rogue off it - here’s to you, Winiesta!