When Jobe Bellingham was officially unveiled as a Sunderland player on Saturday amid a flurry of videos and photographs on social media, two things stood out above all else.
The first was the strength of the bond between Jobe and his brother Jude.
When the England World Cup star made the switch from Borussia Dortmund to Madrid, his younger sibling was there for the unveiling. On Saturday, the roles were reversed as Jude made the trip to Wearside and was by his brother’s side as he put pen to paper on a long-term contract.
In an era where egos are rampant in football, it was proof that family ties can transcend career paths and that they’ve both got each other’s back as they embark on a new chapter.
The second thing that struck me was the amount of composure and maturity that the seventeen year-old Bellingham seems to possess- which was none more evident than in his first interview and as he got his first glimpse of the Stadium of Light.
To hear him speak was to listen to a player who clearly understands the challenge he’ll face at our club, and that he’s also willing to work hard, listen, and improve as a footballer.
Indeed, it wasn’t unlike listening to a young Michael Owen when he first burst onto the scene at Liverpool, with composure beyond his years and a quiet confidence that hinted at an iron-clad belief in his own ability.
In recent years, the overhaul that’s taken place at Sunderland has brought some exceptionally talented footballers to the club but perhaps even more importantly, it’s also allowed us to bring the right kind of personalities to Wearside as well.
For years, the home dressing room at the Stadium of Light was poisoned by a glut of wasters, wage stealers and players who were more than happy to experience the prestige of signing for such a club, but were far less keen to live up to the responsibilities and the expectations that donning the red and white jersey entails.
Think of Will Grigg and Jack Rodwell, and you get the picture.
These were players who had a chance to become true fan favourites but never had the minerals to do the hard yards. Compare Grigg’s efforts and overall mentality in red and white to Ross Stewart’s, for example, and the difference is stark. Grigg shrank in key moments, whereas Stewart has stood tall time and time again.
Thankfully, this squad has no such players within its ranks, and in that sense- even beyond his undoubted talent as a footballer- it’s very easy to see why Bellingham has been brought to the club.
Ability is one thing, but combine that with a poor attitude and/or an unwillingness to put the team above yourself, and you’re not going to be signed by Sunderland. It’s just that simple and it’s something that’s going to be absolutely vital as we aim to progress over the coming seasons.
In essence, what’s been implemented at Sunderland is a variation on the ‘no d**ckheads’ ethos espoused for years by the New Zealand All Blacks, a policy which ensured that every player carried their share of the load, allowing them to win consecutive Rugby World Cups and become arguably the most fearsome force the oval ball game has ever seen.
Last season, the team-oriented mindset of our squad was embodied by the likes of Luke O’Nien, who was shunted here, there and everywhere but got his head down, put in consistently effective performances, and slowly won over even his most ardent doubters.
I can’t remember a time when Sunderland had so many talented players who were burdened by so little ego. The likes of Jack Clarke, Patrick Roberts, Trai Hume, Dan Neil and Abdoullah Ba have skill and talent in abundance, but they’re also likeable players to whom the fans can relate and have taken to their hearts.
Take Clarke, for example. He's an immensely exciting footballer but he also balances that with a willingness to empty the tank and ever improving discipline off the ball- something that steadily improved as last season unfolded.
The strong, shrewd and fair management of Tony Mowbray, plus the guidance of senior members of the squad including Danny Batth and Corry Evans, is helping to keep them on the right track and prevent their heads being turned or their standards to slip.
Last season, the boss often spoke about the importance of ‘values’- a term seldom used by a Sunderland boss in recent times, and the importance of helping these young lads to develop as human beings as well as footballers.
It’s obvious that the overall mantra is ‘We’ll give you a chance to shine, but you must work hard for the team as well’, and it’s bearing fruit, without a doubt.
Very rarely could you use terms such as ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘progressive’ to describe a Sunderland squad, but that’s exactly what we’ve got right now. A group of players recruited from far and wide to represent our club and eventually help it to regain its place in the top flight.
This hasn’t been achieved by sheer good fortune or by spinning a globe, jabbing your finger at a certain country and hoping that you’ll land on goldmine of talent.
It’s taken a lot of hard work to create such an environment and to recruit players who are willing to buy into it. What its given us is a foundation; a foundation on which can continue to build, and will set us in good stead for the future.