Barely five minutes into the second half of Sunderland’s excellent and hard-earned draw with Burnley on Friday night, Pierre Ekwah gathered possession, got his head up and played a raking, accurate pass out to Patrick Roberts on the right flank.
The winger ultimately didn’t make the most of the chance he’d been given, but that isn’t the point.
The point is that Ekwah had the confidence to take it on and the skill to execute it, and this was after a first half during which he’d displayed some promise but also some nervous energy, which we’ll come onto later.
Ekwah, like so many of our players, is a raw talent who’s been brought to the club with a view to the future as well as keeping one eye on the here and now.
He’s also a player short on game time and for whom the Championship is a totally alien league. With that in mind, he deserves patience from the fans and the backing of his coaches, the latter of which he certainly seems to have acquired.
Even though our squad has been decimated by injuries in recent months, it certainly raised eyebrows when Tony Mowbray named him in the starting eleven for the trip to Turf Moor.
Was he ready to tackle the challenge of the runaway league leaders? Would his cameo against Luton set him up for what certainly represented a step up in quality or was this another case of rotation for the sake of it?
On the whole, it probably represented a gamble from the head coach, and the former West Ham academy prospect certainly experienced mixed fortunes against Vincent Kompany’s side.
His energy and work rate, much like the team’s as a whole, was exceptional but he also played some misplaced passes and often looked nervous and slightly jittery on the ball.
Perhaps it was simply down to the magnitude of the occasion but despite some harsh words from fans on social media, he didn’t look totally at sea and what I really liked was that he never shirked his duties and didn’t attempt to hide, either.
If he can add a greater level of calmness in possession to his game and continue to tighten up his passing, there’s an excellent chance that Mowbray will continue to afford him opportunities between now and the end of the season.
If he can treat the final run of games as an extended audition, make a positive impression and continue to build up his match fitness, we’ve got a real asset on our hands.
It’s obvious that his lack of minutes is still an issue, but games such as Friday night will be huge for his development, as well as hopefully helping him to forge the kind of teak-hard mentality that our midfielders need.
How many times over the years have we seen Sunderland players, particularly in the engine room, appear to swap their red and white jersey for a metaphorical ten-tonne weight when they take to the field?
They can be jovial and upbeat in the tunnel but when the whistle blows, many of them have shrunk and ended up looking meek and ineffectual, afraid to make things happen and relegated to the role of a passenger.
So many of them have struggled to deal with the responsibility and expectation of representing our club and although Ekwah still has some way to go, I thought that his application and willingness to persist at Turf Moor were both exceptional, and that’ll set him in good stead for the challenges to come.
Midfield is certainly an area that needs to be addressed for next season, and Mowbray clearly sees value in rotating the likes of Ekwah, Abdoullah Ba and Edouard Michut when possible, but that’s quite the dilemma to have.
Depth is going to be key during 2023/2024, and with the pressure all but off, it’s obvious that the planning is starting now.
A long-term replacement for Corry Evans is definitely high on the agenda, and although Ekwah is nowhere near that level at this stage, there’s no reason why he can’t continue to stake a claim and to show exactly why we persuaded him to swap West Ham for Wearside.