Six months ago, the thought of a Sunderland starting XI without Ross Stewart in it was enough to bring every supporter out in a cold sweat, and the notion of him donning the jersey of another club- particularly in the Championship- was absolute doomsday stuff.
Elevated to the role of our number one striker following the 2021 departure of Charlie Wyke, the big Scot has simply flourished in red and white, developing into a genuine all-round centre forward, leading the line to great effect and capping it all off with a goal in the League One playoff final against Wycombe.
He was, and still very much is, idolised by our supporters and when fit, he’s certainly an automatic pick.
However, Stewart’s debut season in the Championship was cruelly wrecked by two major injuries, despite an impressive goal return in the games in which he did play. First at the Riverside Stadium during the warm up against Middlesbrough, and then on the banks of the Thames as he crumpled to the turf against Fulham in the FA Cup.
Whether the final months of the season would’ve unfolded differently had he not been ruled out, nobody knows, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that Joe Gelhardt’s Sunderland spell would’ve been more productive had he been running onto the knockdowns and flick-ons won by the big Scot.
As we head into the summer, the ongoing ‘will he/won’t he?’ discussion surrounding Stewart remains in full swing, with no breakthrough made as of yet.
The air of uncertainty isn’t exactly new, but it’s also not ideal as we seek to capitalise on last season’s top six finish with even greater progress next season. Having every player fully invested in what we’re doing is absolutely crucial, and as time goes by, nervousness about what comes next will understandably grow.
Surely Stewart can see that this is a club going places and that he’d be a huge part of the future once he’s ready to play again.
They say that money talks, and OK, we might not be paying particularly lucrative wages at this stage, but being part of something exciting and with limitless potential should be just as attractive, and in any case, it’s not like Sunderland are totally powerless right now.
Any potential suitors in the Championship, of which it seems fair to assume there’d be a few, might just have taken a step back in the light of how Stewart’s 2022/2023 campaign unfolded.
At twenty seven, he’s approaching what should be his prime years as a striker, but after two serious injuries, perhaps there’s an element of doubt as to whether he’ll return to peak form when he makes his comeback, and exactly how his body will hold up under the rigours of a tough season.
From Sunderland’s perspective, the equation is simple this summer: we have to cover all bases, continue to fine tune the squad, and ensure that our preparations for next season aren’t hindered by any off-field negotiations.
If Stewart opts to sign a new contract, brilliant, but if he doesn’t, the club can’t afford to get bogged down in a game of brinkmanship. It’s easy for supporters to demand ‘pay him what he wants!’ but we’re not the ones writing the cheques, and after overseeing some impressive progress so far, the hierarchy have earned the right to make the big calls.
It’s unlikely that Kristjaan Speakman and Stuart Harvey will give Stewart an ultimatum along the lines of, ‘We really like you, but look how well your teammates stepped up in your absence, so either sign or we’ll move on’, but there needs to be some positive urgency to find a resolution that suits all parties.
New strikers were always needed this summer, regardless of what happens with Stewart, and for my money, Ellis Simms should be definitely among them, not least because Tony Mowbray needs to have the luxury of being able to rotate his attackers when necessary.
We simply can’t hang our hat, and potentially next season’s prospects, on how this situation is resolved. Not bringing in like-for-like cover for Stewart in January was a huge point of contention, but such a call can’t be made this time.
If the worst comes to the worst, however, and a parting of ways does occur, how we replace the former Ross County striker would be both challenging and fascinating.
Stewart arrived as a relative unknown, after all, and who’s to say that we haven’t got targets in mind who could thrive just as he’s done? Our scouting is operating at a far higher level nowadays, and it may well be that the next exciting Sunderland centre forward isn’t too far away.
I love Stewart and I'd be absolutely elated if he chooses to sign a new deal at Sunderland, but if his future lies elsewhere, and given that we ended the season as the league’s fourth highest scorers in 2022/2023, perhaps we’d be able to cope better and adapt to life without him slightly more easily than we might’ve initially thought.