When Bailey Wright’s Sunderland departure was confirmed on Thursday afternoon, the reaction on social media spoke volumes about our affection for the Australian, both as a player and as a man.
‘Wright just got Sunderland AFC’
‘A class act on and off the pitch’
‘He wore his heart on his sleeve’
Kristjaan Speakman also delivered a fitting tribute, declaring that he ‘couldn’t speak highly enough’ of Wright and that his ‘contribution and conduct throughout his time at Sunderland had been exemplary’.
The praise was fulsome and fully deserved for a player who, over the course of 107 appearances in red and white, earned a place in the hearts of the supporters, was a rock at the back during the often turbulent League One years, and fulfilled his objective by playing a huge part in our playoff run and eventual promotion at the end of 2021/2022.
Wright was involved in many memorable victories during his time on Wearside, and possibly the abiding image of his Sunderland career could be that of him in the aftermath of our playoff semi-final victory over Sheffield Wednesday on that unforgettable night at Hillsborough.
With blood pouring from a gash on his head as he stared straight into the camera with a wild-eyed expression, he might’ve been battered and bruised but he’d also been a colossus, showing his class and guile and ensuring that our passage to Wembley was secured and that the dream of promotion was alive.
Why was Wright such a fan favourite? Because apart from his ability as a defender, he came across as a humble, honest and salt of the earth kind of bloke. In many ways, he was the archetypical Alex Neil defender and at the time, that was decisive and crucial to our chances.
With no interest in the limelight and a low-key profile off the field, he was the kind of presence that every dressing room needs: always there when needed and an example for younger players to follow, but never flashy and never one to play the ‘Big Time Charlie’ role.
He was a true team player, never interested in personal glory, and his experience and leadership were absolutely priceless, particularly whenever he was playing alongside a variety of relatively inexperienced teammates.
Nowadays, with money poisoning the game, egos running rampant and contracts seldom worth the paper they’re written on, it’s almost pithy to claim that a player ‘got a club’, so easily is loyalty bought and sold.
In Wright’s case, however, and much like Luke O’Nien, you can apply that to his Sunderland spell and then some. Our League One years were pockmarked with a multitude of failed defensive signings, among them Joel Lynch and Laurens de Bock, but Wright was a major success story.
He recognised that Sunderland supporters want to see effort, commitment, resilience and a willingness to empty the tank whenever they pull on the jersey. This was even more pronounced during our time in the third tier, and only players with the stomach for the fight were wanted and embraced by the fanbase.
His game was built on such qualities and it’s a huge part of why he’ll never be forgotten by our fans and will doubtless never pay for a pint of Foster’s in Sunderland again.
In terms of where this leaves us when it comes to defensive depth, perhaps the blow of Wright’s departure will be cushioned by the transfer business we’ve done so far.
We’re very much in the market for dynamic, ball-playing defenders, and that’s a natural progression as we seek to build on last season’s playoff run and ensure that we’re as solid at the back as possible for 2023/2024.
Fellow Australian Nectarios Triantis and Dutch prospect Jenson Seelt have already arrived, and with Dan Ballard and Danny Batth on the comeback trail, competition for places will be fierce next season.
Wright, being the old school professional that he is, would doubtless be the first to acknowledge that he needs to be playing regular football at this stage of his career, and so his departure doesn’t feel entirely unexpected.
Thanks for everything you did for us, Bailey, and good luck for the future.
Sit back, crack open a cold beer, and reflect on a Sunderland career that ultimately ended on a positive note, with the club you represented so proudly back in the Championship and well placed to kick on. You’ll be welcome back at the Stadium of Light any time.