As Sunderland supporters, we’ve always had a soft spot for players who are often bracketed somewhat lazily as ‘maverick’ talents.
These are footballers who can frustrate and electrify a crowd, and who have the confidence to try things that could change the dynamic of a game at a key moment.
Whether it’s a drop of the shoulder and a shimmy to beat a man and open up the target, or a slide-rule pass that can unlock a defence with ease, having players in your squad who see things differently and aren’t afraid to go off-piste from time to time can be priceless.
From Len Shackleton in the 1950s to Nicky Summerbee in the 1990s and the mercurial Steed Malbranque and Stéphane Sessegnon in more recent times, footballers with the skill to dazzle opponents have always found favour with fans on the terraces at Roker Park and at the Stadium of Light.
It’s true that investing in such players can often lead to moments of frustration if things they attempt don’t quite come off.
Former Lads’ striker Trevor Ford once reportedly said that Shackleton’s tricks and flicks ‘got us nowhere’, but in this era, wouldn’t we rather have players who want to be progressive and help the team to achieve things rather than playing within themselves and being afraid to take chances?
In 2023, players with those attributes are in plentiful supply at Sunderland. This is due in no small part to the changed environment at the Stadium of Light and an ethos where fear is kept to a minimum and playing with freedom is often the order of the day.
We all know how devastating Jack Clarke can be on his day. We’ve seen Dan Neil’s gradual evolution into a genuine all-round midfielder with an ever more impressive range of passing, and Jobe Bellingham’s maturity and poise is quite something for a player of his age and relative inexperience.
Amid this mass of talent, however, is another exciting player in the shape of summer arrival Adil Aouchiche.
An unknown quantity to many when he arrived on Wearside from Lorient alongside fellow Frenchman Timothée Pembélé, Aouchiche hasn’t yet cemented himself in our starting eleven but he’s beginning to make some serious impressions from the bench and his first goal against Birmingham City before the international break was a great moment.
Last week, I wrote about this team’s impressive ability to entertain and what the future might hold, and I have a growing belief that Aouchiche may come to embody it in abundance.
Within a year or so, and regardless of who might arrive or depart during that time and whether we’re promoted or not, I honestly do believe that he’ll be one of our most valuable players and someone who’ll be attracting admiring glances from rival clubs.
He plays with the kind of positive swagger that was missing at Sunderland for a long time, and a good turn of pace and willingness to take his opposite number are all there.
Just thinking about how much Aouchiche might turn it on in a high-stakes game under the floodlights and in front of a packed crowd is a very exciting prospect, and what a player to be able to call upon!
Looking back to 2010/2011, I was there when Sessegnon made his Sunderland debut against Chelsea.
On that freezing cold night, and although we ultimately lost the game against the Blues, I remember feeling that I’d watched someone with huge potential, and the same is true of Aouchiche.
Within this team and given our front-foot, positive approach to football, he feels like a great fit, and it’s probably safe to assume that his burgeoning status as a fan favourite is only going to increase.
At the heart of Sunderland’s recruitment policy nowadays is succession planning, and ensuring that if and when a particular player does leave, there’s someone of equal or maybe even greater talent who can eventually step into the breach.
Aouchiche certainly has the potential to do exactly that, and it feels like a matter of time before he’s named in a starting eleven and unleashed on the Championship from the first whistle. As a French age-group international, his pedigree at such a young age is impressive and Sunderland is arguably the perfect place for him at this stage.
Tony Mowbray’s decision to gradually phase him in is perfectly sensible. It’s worked very well with other players and when Aouchiche gets his chance as a starter, I’m sure he’ll be eager to take it.
We’re clearly looking to tap into the European market on a regular basis nowadays, and if Aouchiche continues to settle into life on Wearside and impress everyone with his skills, we might have another gem of a signing on our hands.
His unique goal celebration might go over the heads of older and non-trendy fans like me, and he might’ve been an unknown when he arrived, but I’ve got a growing feeling that won’t be the case for very much longer.