With just over forty hours to go until the transfer window slams shut and we can finally take stock after another interesting summer, the Sunderland rumour mill is currently spinning at an ever increasing rate.
With Ross Stewart linked with a move to Southampton, Lynden Gooch rumoured to be a target for Stoke and Pierre Ekwah apparently the subject of hastily-rebuffed interest from Stuttgart, it means that nerves are jangling, fingers are being crossed, and everyone is hoping that we’ll be in good shape when the music finally stops.
All of the players listed above are valuable to us in their own way, and losing any one of them would certainly be disheartening. However, there’s another member of the current squad whose services we must retain if possible, such is his importance to the club at this moment in time.
When Alex Pritchard was unveiled as a Sunderland player in the summer of 2021, as our much-vaunted ‘data-driven recruitment’ plan started to take shape, it’s fair to that there was much shrugging of shoulders and no small amount of indifference at the news of his arrival.
Yes, he had Premier League pedigree, but there was little to suggest that the diminutive attacker would be anything more than a solid if unspectacular addition to our ranks.
Fast forward two short years, however, and the ongoing bemusement and general discontent at a potential Wearside departure for Pritchard illustrates just how much he’s respected by our fans and exactly how key his influence is, both on and off the field.
For weeks, Pritchard, along with fellow senior figures Danny Batth and Gooch, has been linked with a move away from Sunderland.
With a plethora of players who can slot into his favoured number ten position (among them Bradley Dack, who’ll doubtless become a key player for us this season), the narrative is that Pritchard is now surplus to requirements and could be tempted to seek a more lucrative contract- as well as the prospect of increased game time- elsewhere.
As we enter the final knockings of the transfer window, it’s still very much in the balance as to whether we’ll be saying farewell to him, but I sincerely hope that the ex-Norwich playmaker remains a Sunderland player beyond Friday evening’s deadline.
In my opinion, losing Pritchard would deal us an even more painful blow than saying goodbye to either Batth or Gooch this summer.
We could just about cope with losing Batth as we do have adequate if somewhat untested cover in central defence, and the same is true of the right back position, despite Gooch’s admirable versatility.
Of the trio, I feel that Pritchard is the most influential, the player of the highest calibre, and an absolutely key component of how we play.
Although we’re not short of creative attackers, Jobe Bellingham is seventeen years old and will need to be managed carefully, Dack isn’t fully fit, and Abdoullah Ba, at this stage, simply isn’t at the level we currently need. This leaves something of a void, and there’s one man who can fill it.
What you get with Pritchard, in addition to his skill and guile, is that most vital of attributes for a team in such a competitive league: composure under pressure.
He rarely, if ever, looks hurried on the ball, and that calmness is something that you often see reflected in his teammates whenever he enters the fray.
As a substitute or a starter, Pritchard is a real ace in our pack, a player upon whom Tony Mowbray can call when things are getting tense, and more often than not, he’ll make a real difference.
This value was illustrated superbly during our 1-1 draw at Millwall last season.
We were under severe pressure for the majority of that game as the Lions deployed their roughhouse tactics, but when Pritchard entered the fray, he allowed us to get a foot on the ball, to calm things down, and eventually turn the tide in our favour, with Dennis Cirkin eventually grabbing a vital equaliser.
I also feel that Pritchard is the kind of player who could help to unlock the potential of the likes of Hemir and Eliezer Mayenda when the latter makes his Sunderland debut.
His ability to thread accurate passes in between opposing defenders and the way he conducts himself would set a great example for them, and I get a sense that he’d thrive on the challenge of bringing the best out of them.
I accept that having a succession plan for certain positions is vital, and there’s every chance that in the long term, we could adjust to life without Pritchard as other players improve and gradually step into the breach.
However, at this moment in time, I do feel that losing him would be a misstep from the club.
Quite how Sunderland’s squad will look for Saturday’s game against Southampton is anyone’s guess, but let’s hope that Pritchard’s name is still there. His Sunderland story shouldn’t be over yet, because he’s certainly got a lot left to give in red and white.