Danny Batth was probably one of the least-feted signings of the current era. A durable, dependable professional who had never quite reached the peak of top-level defenders, he nevertheless brought a wealth of experience to a team full of unproven young defenders. Yet I cannot recall anyone seeing his signing as anything greater than a capable, if limited, lynchpin at the heart of the defence. Yet he proved to be far more than that.
A promising partnership with Dan Ballard was twice cut short by injuries to the former Arsenal player. Instead, Batth used his experience to support players such Aji Alese and Luke O’Nien, as they found their feet as Championship defenders, and to help Trai Hume and Dennis Cirkin prove themselves at this level.
There is absolutely no doubt that Batth’s absence against Luton was a significant factor in Sunderland’s failure to progress in the playoffs. There is equally absolutely no doubt that he fully deserved to win the Player of the Year award, even ahead of stellar performers such as Amad, Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts.
Yet fast forward a couple of months, and it seems that Danny Batth’s time at Sunderland may be coming to an end. For many supporters, the exit of our Player of the Year seems inconceivable, and understandably so.
Why on earth would the club allow such a pivotal figure to depart?
It is clear that the hierarchy do not see a future for Danny Batth, beyond his current contract which expires at the end of the season. And, if you look carefully at recruitment and the Ipswich game, the clues as to why are there.
The club’s current preferred full-backs (when fit) Trai Hume, Dennis Cirkin and Niall Huggins are all capable of moving into midfield, when play transitions from defence into attack. Dan Ballard has the same ability. Cirkin and Hume can also both play in the centre of defence. As can Alese. And anyone who recalls the videos of Aji Alese in his West Ham U23 appearances will recall a player who could also play ahead of the defence. Those same qualities are also evident in our two new centre halves, Nectar Triantis and Jenson Seelt.
But by far the biggest clue came in midfield, during the Ipswich game. Last season, Dan Neil occupied the defensive role while Pierre Ekwah tended to maraud further forward. Their roles were predictable. On Sunday, Neil and Ekwah switched positions frequently, leaving their counterparts unsure of who to mark.
At this point it is worth noting that Ekwah was far more disciplined when taking up the defensive position than he was last season. Equally Dan Neil popped up to support the attack far more frequently than he did a couple of months ago. Mowbray clearly wants his preferred midfield pairing to pose new questions for opponents.
It seems that Tony Mowbray is now looking for his defenders to also adopt a more fluid and less predictable formation in transition. That appears to be the explanation as to why O’Nien was preferred to Batth - Luke’s grounding as a midfielder allows him to step forward in a way that Danny Batth can’t.
The inspiration for this approach is clear when you look players such as John Stones at Man City, and Trent Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool - defenders who can play in midfield.
A manager of Tony Mowbray’s experience will know that, after our surprise achievement in reaching the playoffs last season, teams will believe that they have worked us out for this campaign. I was a bit underwhelmed when he was appointed - wrongly, I saw him as a bit of a dinosaur. Now it looks like the wily old chocolate monster has looked at what Guardiola and Klopp have been doing, and has learned.
Last season, our overloads came almost exclusively down the right flank - Amad, Roberts and Hume combined regularly. With no central striker, and Jack Clarke able to occupy defenders at will, it was an effective strategy.
But it is appears that this season, with an actual striker (touch wood), Mowbray wants to create overloads on both flanks, and through the centre. To do that effectively, and leave the opposition guessing who will be stepping up, he needs defenders who are all capable of ‘doing a John Stones’ and becoming midfielders.
And that, regrettably is why Sunderland and Danny Batth are likely to part company. Last season he was a stalwart, and was deservedly recognised as such. Danny Batth played a huge role in bringing our club out of one of the darkest periods in our history in League One. He merits a place alongside the great centre halves who have represented this club - Charlie Hurley, Dave Watson, Shaun Elliott, Kevin Ball, and Gary Bennett to name but a few.
But this Sunderland team is progressing, and Danny Batth is not a player who can be part of that progression. If there is a club that can offer him the certainty that he deserves in the latter part of his career, it ill behooves anyone to stand in his way.
I will be sad to see him go, and be forever grateful for the part he played in our escape from League One. And I hope he will find a club that gives him a contract that his professionalism deserves.