If 2022/2023 was something of a false start for Jewison Bennette at Sunderland, following his brave decision to swap Costa Rica for Wearside at the age of eighteen, the upcoming campaign could be the time for this talented youngster to take a giant leap forward in red and white.
When he arrived at the Stadium of Light last summer, there was a good deal of intrigue, some of it perhaps tinged by a modicum of scepticism, about the direction we were heading and the kind of players we were targeting.
How exactly had he appeared on Sunderland’s radar, and why had we suddenly zeroed in on Costa Rica as a country in which we could potentially find the talents of tomorrow? Was this simply a game of ‘Football Manager’ being played in real life or an approach with genuine logic behind it?
Perhaps it was an early example of the club casting the net ever wider in their search for exciting players (something that’s continued during this window with the signing of Nectar Triantis) and although Bennette hasn’t yet been an unqualified success at Sunderland, he’s certainly shown enough to suggest that he could play a more significant role this season.
Some promising performances and goals against Watford and Fulham in the FA Cup offered some early evidence of the talent he possesses, but his season failed to fully ignite, and a dislocated shoulder eventually brought his maiden campaign in English football to a premature end.
This summer, there’s been plenty of discussions about who should or shouldn’t be loaned out as we prepare for what’ll be another tough season, and Bennette’s name has cropped up from time to time.
However, I simply don’t think a loan move would do him any good whatsoever.
After only a year on Wearside, during which time he’s clearly settled down and grown accustomed to his new home, sending him out to League One to be thrown headfirst into a brutal and often hostile style of football is likely to stymie his progression, not advance it.
I also happen to think such a move would send a fairly uninspiring message to Bennette himself.
The old arguments about players needing to be ‘toughened up’ with loan spells in the lower leagues simply don't feel appropriate in this context, and you get a sense that he’ll benefit more from an arm around the shoulder as opposed to a cold shoulder and a season spent elsewhere.
The fact of the matter is that players such as Bennette are the embodiment of Sunderland’s new ethos.
We’ll give a player his chance, ease him gradually into the team, and back him to deliver. They clearly see huge value in doing so with the young attacker, and if he wants further proof of this, he only has to look around the dressing room, where there are plenty of players whose Sunderland careers were initially slow-burning before something clicked and they became key figures.
Something else that should also work in Bennette’s favour is the fact that he’s been able to take part in a full pre-season this summer, giving him more time to get comfortable with what’s expected of him, how he can fit into our system, and how he can best use his talents.
When he first arrived, he was somewhat behind the curve in terms of match fitness (as well as the small matter of suddenly finding himself thousands of miles from home), and perhaps that was reflected in his lack of game time, but there’ll hopefully be no such problems this time.
The goal he scored against San Antonio was exactly the kind of thing we need to see more of this season: direct, head-up running on the ball, and the confidence to finish the opportunity off. Limited opposition, yes, but the principle is the same: get him on the ball and let his natural ability carry him through.
We aren’t short of pacy attackers and he probably won’t be a starter for a while, but with a long season to come and rotation definitely on the agenda, Bennette needs to be 100% ready to take advantage of any opportunity he’s given.
If his maiden campaign in English football was a season of adjustment for the Costa Rican, there’s no reason why 2023/2024 can’t be a campaign of genuine progression for a player who has always come across as an upbeat and affable character.
The talent is certainly there, and with the backing of Tony Mowbray and the encouragement of his teammates, there’s every reason to be excited about what Bennette might contribute to what we all hope will be a successful season.