When Corry Evans went down in fairly innocuous fashion against Middlesbrough I was sure that he’d get up, run off whatever knock he’d picked up, and continue to lead from the front.
The reality was different and little did we know that our captain wouldn’t be seen in a Sunderland shirt for the remainder of the season. Yes, we do have a plethora of exciting options in midfield, but replacing his totemic presence in the engine room is nigh on impossible.
There was also a good deal of irony in the news of him signing a new contract in between two games against Rotherham and Coventry where he was sorely missed and where we were too easily outgunned en route to defeat.
Would we have lost those crucial battles in the middle of the park had he been there, making challenges, breaking up the play and not taking a backwards step? I think not.
Evans wouldn’t have allowed Rotherham’s physicality or Coventry’s mastery of the dark arts to faze him. He would’ve stood strong, thundered into tackles, emptied the tank, and driven us forward at every given opportunity. That’s what he does - he inspires and he rallies his teammates when needed.
In praising Evans, I’m certainly not downplaying the quality that we can call upon in this area of the pitch.
Dan Neil and Edouard Michut are supremely talented footballers when given the time, space and protection to do their thing, but the blood and thunder of a midfield duel isn’t their main strength and until Pierre Ekwah is finally unleashed, there’s a definite void that needs to be filled.
This isn’t to say that we’re doomed to failure without Evans, merely that he brings priceless attributes at this level.
With that in mind, the announcement of his new contract was a major boost for everyone, not least because it shows that the club is willing to stand by its players as they go through rehabilitation programmes after suffering injuries.
It must be a great relief to the player himself that he needn’t worry about his future and that his Wearside career is set to continue. He can recover, embark on a full pre-season programme, and hopefully head into the 2023/2024 campaign at full throttle.
Was he worthy of a new contract? Without a shadow of a doubt.
Yes, everyone wants to hear that Ross Stewart has put pen to paper on a new deal, and justifiably so, but there are other highly influential players at the club whose services it’s vital that we retain.
Evans is a man around which the club’s very ethos is now built.
He’s one of the older heads in the dressing room and he commands respect from his teammates and admiration from the fans - much like his brother Jonny, who enjoyed two fruitful loan spells on Wearside in the mid-2000s.
Midway through the 2021/2022 season, as we endured periods of inconsistent form under Lee Johnson, I described some of Evans’ performances as ‘cowardly’ and suggested that he was one of the most ineffectual Sunderland captains of recent times, comparing him unfavourably to Kevin Ball.
I may never live such a wretchedly misguided takedown, because after the arrival of Alex Neil he was a player transformed as he led from the front, and eventually became the first Sunderland captain to taste success in a Wembley playoff final.
In doing so he proved that although you can always endure frustrating spells, you’ll eventually succeed if you continue to show the right qualities, and his turnaround in form was quite remarkable.
When Neil left to be replaced by Tony Mowbray, Evans continued to lead the way, establishing himself as one of Mowbray’s generals and I've got no doubt that when he returns, he’ll be firmly in the frame for a berth in midfield.
Long-term, Sunderland are clearly targeting a particular profile of player, and if we’re in the Championship next season, 30+ appearances from Evans could be one of the major factors if we’re to make an even more significant impact and possibly mount a sustained promotion challenge.
Good luck with your rehab, Corry. See you in August!