So, Carl Winchester has announced he is leaving the club when his contract is up this summer. There may be some sadness in that, but it’s also another positive sign of the direction we are going in.
When Winchester signed for Lee Johnson’s League One Sunderland, as it was then, our mercurial manager said the former Forest Green man had “telescopic legs”. Naturally, we’d also signed him because Lee’s dad liked him.
Being honest, having watched Winiesta play for us between 2021 and 2023, that typical Johnson turn of phrase is still beyond me. He had an admirable tendency to shoot from distance but I’m not sure his shooting or passing could be described as “telescopic”.
Johnson-isms aside, though, Winchester was exactly the kind of character the club needed at that time. Coming off the back of the grim, grim period under Parkiola in lockdown, Sunderland were craving players who would always give their all and demand it of those around them; Championship-level talent was a distant second consideration. Winchester had that desire in spades.
When I was thinking about his departure, I was put in mind of Luke O’Nien. While Winchester’s departure probably seemed inevitable as soon as he went out on loan to Shrewsbury last summer, in many ways he embodied the same qualities that have helped O’Nien become a key part of a thriving Championship Sunderland side.
As well as that admirable spirit I mentioned before, Winchester had the combativeness and adaptability that has helped O’Nien maintain his place in the team beyond the point most fans probably ever expected he could do.
Signed as a centre midfielder, Winchester was for a time our starting right-back and even played as the right man in a back three defensive line during our amazing end to last season under Alex Neil. He was both willing and able to do exactly what was asked of him when it was most needed.
For whatever reason, possibly physical, Winchester was judged unable to translate that importance into our Championship side, where O’Nien has gone on to thrive more than ever. Perhaps if he’d arrived at the club at the same age as O’Nien, though, we’d have seen a similar transformation. I certainly saw as much footballing talent in Winnie as in Luke.
I’m not sure there is much more I have to say about Winchester the footballer. He was a committed, tough-tackling player who was certainly good enough to play a big part in our promotion party last year. Frankly, he was never likely to be a part of our long-term plan, and our unexpected playoff appearance this season means we’ve effectively left such players behind.
What I will remember about him though is that he was an important part of putting the team back on the path to where it is now. For that, he’ll always be someone I look back at fondly and I’m sure will be welcome back at the Stadium of Light whenever he wants to come. That the club is moving in a different direction to Winiesta reflects well on both sides, and I’m sure Sunderland have given Winchester as many momentous memories as he helped give us.
Plus, we’ll always have his wonderfully dulcet Northern Irish tones preserved in post-match interviews on safc.com - thank Gary Johnson for that!