There’s been much debate in recent days about the future of Alex Pritchard.
That followed a maelstrom of angst surrounding Danny Batth, and there’s apparently been interest in Lynden Gooch from QPR, now managed by football’s resident Michael Bolton tribute act, Gareth Ainsworth.
The link between the three is that they’re all in the final year of their contracts, and with no indication that the club intends to offer them an extension.
Sunderland’s pre-season contract business focused very much on young, up-and-coming players. Dan Ballard, Dennis Cirkin and Trai Hume all signed new contracts, and Chris Rigg’s immediate future was settled, despite reported interest from ‘bigger’ clubs.
Nevertheless, it seems that the sun will finally be setting on the long association between Gooch and Sunderland.
The ‘Cali Mackem’ has been a wholehearted and committed club stalwart, albeit without ever quite managing to find a permanent place in the team. The closest he came was during the successful run to the League One playoffs under Alex Neil, as a right wingback.
He’s always given his best, whether operating as a right back, a left back, a winger, a central midfielder or, in the most unlikely circumstances, on the left side of a back three. He’s the epitome of a loyal servant- a rarity in modern day football.
Yet his ability to have as many functions as a Swiss Army knife has been surpassed, firstly by the ubiquitous Luke O’Nien and more recently by Niall Huggins, who finally seems to have emerged from his injury nightmare and is beginning to show signs of fulfilling his early promise.
Both now appear to be ahead of Gooch in the utility defender/midfielder role.
O’Nien can play anywhere across the back four; Huggins covers both full back roles, and can also step into midfield. With Cirkin embedded as our left back, Aji Alese returning to fitness and Hume at right back, there are likely to be few opportunities for Gooch.
Further forward, Pritchard has served the club equally well in the last two seasons.
He looked a class above in League One, has earned plaudits in the Championship, and his absence at the expense of the Amad and Patrick Roberts partnership often left Jack Clarke to plough a lone furrow down the left wing, particularly when Cirkin was also missing.
An often overlooked part of his game is how he leads the press onto the opposing defence, but his work rate does mean that he rarely plays beyond seventy minutes.
This season, he faces a very different challenge to win a place in the starting XI.
Amad may have gone but the competition at the top of the pitch has increased. Bradley Dack is fractionally younger than Pritchard but his statistics indicate a far more potent goal threat. However, it’s the youngsters coming up on the rails that mean that Pritchard’s opportunities may be limited.
Jobe Bellingham clearly has no intention of living in his brother’s shadow, and choosing the name ‘Jobe’ for the back of his shirt is a statement of intent that he’ll forge his own path.
Chris Rigg clearly sees Sunderland as the best place for his development but his age will allow bigger teams to swoop in if his progression is stifled here. So far, he’s shown every sign that ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’, and the incentive for the club to provide opportunities for both is huge.
Pritchard is now competing for a place in the team with three other very viable candidates.
As for Batth, I wrote recently how pivotal he was last season, before his injury. Yet with the development of Ballard, O’Nien’s superior passing, and the arrival of Nectar Triantis and Jenson Seelt, his days at the club appear to be numbered.
And that’s why the situation that all three are in is causing an understandable degree of consternation among the fanbase.
The only way of settling the uncertainty for any of them would be to offer a longer contract, but with the younger players now coming through, it’s unsurprising that the club haven’t done so.
That leaves Gooch, Pritchard and Batth in a difficult situation.
They’re 27, 30, and 32 respectively, and with the possible exception of Jack Rodwell, no player of that age will not want to be playing.
This is their career. It’s what pays their bills and provides for their families. If another club is prepared to offer them the security of a contract that extends beyond next summer, it would be wrong for our club to stand in their way, and would likely sour their relationship with Sunderland.
The clamour for experience in such a young squad is understandable, but achieving that by effectively holding players hostage in the last few months of their contract is a recipe for disaster. This young squad appears to be gelling very effectively, and now isn’t the time to throw in a little unnecessary discontent.
For me, when Corry Evans suffered a serious injury, it was a real marker when the club extended his contract.
That was an indication that this is a club where ‘doing the right thing’ for players actually matters, and it was the same when they supported Jordan Willis in his rehabilitation.
If we do lose Batth, Pritchard or Gooch before the transfer window closes, it’ll be a concern, but it’ll also only happen because the club recognises that it’s the right thing to do for those players.
On the other hand, it would also open up opportunities for others. Would Dan Neil or Pierre Ekwah have developed at the same pace if Corry Evans had not been injured? It was only an injury to Gooch that led to the emergence of Trai Hume.
Experience is important, but only in the right circumstances.