So, how did Trai get on early doors?
It’s probably fair to say from most people’s perspectives that Trai Hume has had a steady if slightly slow start to his SAFC career. That was maybe not to be unexpected given his age and the fact he had only previously played for Ballymena and Linfield, over the other side of the Irish Sea. His step up to playing in the English third tier – and subsequently the Championship – was always likely to take some time.
The 20-year-old right-back and Northern Ireland Under 21 international signed for the lads in January of last year, when SAFC was still being led by Lee Johnson. He clearly impressed those in the recruitment team who sought him out almost a year ago, as he secured a four-year contract which, if run to its completion, will make him a Black Cats player till at least 2026.
Trai spent a lot of his early Mackem months either on the bench or not in the squad at all, though he did make a couple of appearances as a sub for Alex Neil in mid-August last year. That included a token couple of minutes in our 1-0 away win against Stoke, when it was likely already a point of discussion that Neil would be leaving us for them a week later.
Between August and October when we were firmly under the steerage of our present gaffer Tony Mowbray and doing okay in tier 2, Trai made the bench a handful of times, but he missed out on being in the squad more often than he warmed the red seats in the dugout.
He did get some minutes in our back-to-back losses against Blackburn and Burnley in the middle of October, which most fans will remember well… mainly as we should have either drawn or won against Rovers, and would have done if not for poor officiating.
The Burnley game was more of a “game of two halves” than any other before or since, with the lads looking glorious and very poor in equal measure, but ultimately losing out by four goals to two.
So what’s changed?
It is only really since late October/early November that Trai has regularly been seen on the bench, and while he has only played four league games since then, Sunderland have never lost a game Trai has taken part in since that weird 4-2 defeat to Burnley.
Across those games we have won away at both Birmingham and Wigan, have beaten Blackburn at home, and drew away at Blackpool - another “one that got away” that we really should have won in the end. We also won away at Shrewsbury in the FA cup with Trai at right back.
Trai played all 90 mins of three of those league games as well as the whole FA cup tie, and played almost half of a game against Blackburn at our place.
Is this a coincidence? Or is there more to it than that?
OK, so he has stepped up of late. Isn’t he just doing his job?
In my view, in these last couple of league games, Trai has not only played his part, but he has also really shone. The fiery tackles away at Wigan made very evident his desire to compete and win. That alone is something we SAFC fans look for and may be enough to make him stand out, but he didn't stop there.
Trai progressed to get his first SAFC assist at Wigan, playing a bounced pass back across the goal for the now-departed Ellis Simms to nod a simple header in at the back post in the first half. He helped us to get the first of our four goals that day, driving the team to six points from six in late December.
He then built on that with a further assist away at Blackpool. Showing that he is more than just a decent defender, Trai pushed up in support of big Ross in the last half-hour, and threw a massive header back into the box after an attempted clearance by The Tangerines. His header was directed beautifully for the main man to glance it nicely past the keeper.
The desire shown purely with that header helped us to turn that game around, making it a fixture we should have won by full-time. Trai’s overlapping runs supporting Amad and Roberts that day showed another tool in his box too.
He looked comfortable; he gelled and fitted in, and his performance almost helped us to get nine points from nine, and gained him a man-of-the-match nod from our Andy in the post-match player ratings.
Why is this such a big deal?
For months and arguably even years, Sunderland have had issues with successfully populating our defensive positions, especially right and left back.
We have tried a number of players in the full back and wing back positions, a lot of the time using people who are not natural in that slot but are willing to cover as well as they can due to injuries and other issues. To finally have a natural full back playing where he fits in for me is potentially the end of a very frustrating spell for us.
Yes, the efforts from the likes of Winchester, O’Nien, Gooch and others playing in that position have been appreciated and, at times, have worked well, but you cannot beat having a positional natural playing where they have grown up learning their trade.
The instincts that natural positional players have in terms of playing the percentages and preventing risks of conceding are something we have been sorely missing on both sides of our defence.
Tie that together with the fact that this kid (and Cirkin on the other side of the pitch) can also clearly contribute at the other end, and I cannot help feeling chuffed and excited about what this may do for our prospects.
That four-year deal we rather cannily got him to sign around a year ago looks like a good move.
What does this mean for other players?
Sadly for the likes of Lynden Gooch and others who have done their best to fill this gap, if we can keep Hume fit, I think players like Lynden getting back into the starting 11 is going to be a real challenge.
He is probably closer to getting a start at wing back than full back, but in both setups he may be left wanting a lot of the time.
Gooch is clearly someone who commands a lot of respect from the club leadership, to the point that he often dons the skipper's armband when he does run out over the chalk for the lads.
With those positions, and his more natural attacking slots, suitably covered by skilled and natural players, Gooch could struggle to get a runout.
Much like Hume has had to since crossing the Irish Sea, the likes of Gooch and others may now need to show patience, train very hard, and wait for their chance.
Let’s hope that Hume stays fit for a good while and continues to show us what he can do.
With prospects like him and Cirkin in our defence (once Dennis gets back from his present injury challenge) and with backup such as Gooch waiting in the wings, the future can only be bright for the lads in red and white.