In the absence of Aji Alese and Dennis Cirkin, Luke O’Nien is currently plugging the gap at left back for Sunderland and as mentioned recently, it’s been a bit of a ‘basket case’ position for a decade or more.
Similar to O’Nien, we’ve sometimes seen right-sided defenders filling in or wingers who’ve moved back into the void, and not just for the odd game but for entire seasons.
Indeed, during our time in League One, it often seemed to be our Achilles heel, but how times change.
It feels like a lifetime since we had two very capable left-sided full backs potentially pushing for the same place in the side.
Under the management of Peter Reid during our 1998/1999 promotion push, the no nonsense Martin Scott and the flying Michael Gray had different strengths and very different styles. They both had their fans as well as their pros and cons.
In Sunderland-born Gray, we had an energetic youngster who often deputised in Scott’s absence but who also wasn’t the strongest defensively.
On the other hand, Scott’s all round game had seen him spoken about for a potential international call-up for England following our promotion in 1996 and his own strong start during the club’s debut Premier League season.
However, when injuries struck, Gray deputised throughout the 1997/1998 season in as part of Sunderland’s youngest ever back four which featured Jody Craddock alongside the two Darrens, Williams and Holloway.
The great irony of that campaign was that Gray took the final penalty at Wembley, only to fluff his lines from twelve yards. In contrast, spot kicks were one of Scott’s specialities.
After that pre-season, Scott was finally approaching fitness and questions over Gray’s position were the subject of discussion on radio phone ins during the days before social media.
It seems funny now, given the number of times Gray appeared for Sunderland in the number three shirt but to put it in context, we hadn’t missed out on automatic promotion because of a lack of firepower, but due to a leaky defence.
So, the big question was how could we possibly utilise both players in equal measure?
It was suggested that Scott’s uncompromising defensive abilities would be well suited to away matches or when facing trickier opponents in big games. Conversely, when opting for a more attacking style at home, there was the possibility of utilising Gray’s pace, crossing ability and connection with Allan Johnston to provide an added spark.
It was certainly some prospect but it also seemed to underestimate just how dominant we’d be throughout that season.
As it was, Scott never returned to the side on a regular basis and continued to suffer injury problems.
Some fans might’ve seen the silver lining as Gray established himself, first as part of an exciting and memorable combination with Johnston before stepping up to the Premier League and collecting three England caps along the way.
Indeed, he was such an integral part of Reid’s side that he would eventually be handed the captain’s armband.
Ultimately, the idea of a rotation system to get the best out of both Scott and Gray to aid our promotion push never materialised, but I still find myself comparing our current options in a similar way.
Once the dust has settled, we may compare this campaign to 1997/1998, a season in which we could’ve been defensively better in some games.
Due to the number of young players in our ranks, there’s a naivety about the squad, but that’s something that another year’s worth of experience will improve.
To his credit, Cirkin is a decent all round full back who likes to get forward and support Jack Clarke down the flank. He’s a player who’s grown during his time at Sunderland and that’ll only continue.
That said, Alese has been one of the unsung heroes of this season.
He’s not the flying wing back type but he’s strong defensively and given that we lack height throughout the side, his inclusion at left back could well be something we benefit from. Also, should we change the system, he can move into a back three if necessary.
Perhaps a more pragmatic approach, as suggested above, could help.
So far, Tony Mowbray hasn’t looked like tinkering too much but as he’s made clear in recent weeks, the aim this season wasn’t promotion.
If that were to change next season, surely Mowbray could see how the two players, if used smartly, would only complement his side. Also, any means of achieving a better defensive record and picking up an extra five to ten points come the end of a long Championship season can prove all important, depending on a team’s position.
Both players are going to play a huge part in our future and it seems that the only thing to work out is exactly how to maximise their potential for the project ahead.