Let me begin this article by nailing my colours very firmly to the mast.
I firmly believe that Alex Pritchard remains an important member of Sunderland’s squad and although it feels unlikely at this stage, given the club’s often hardline approach to contracts for players over a certain age, he’d also be more than worthy of an extension.
However, it also feels increasingly likely that at some stage in the near future, we’ll be bidding farewell to a player who’s had a huge impact in red and white- an outcome that'll doubtless be met with plenty of scepticism from a fanbase already bruised by recent events.
In recent days, a move to Birmingham City has been mooted, and it would be undeniably fascinating to see how Pritchard would fit into Tony Mowbray’s team if he made the switch to St Andrew’s.
Nevertheless, and despite all of the whispers and rumours, if and when Pritchard finally moves on, he’ll do so in the knowledge that he’s played as big a role as any other player in Sunderland’s recent rebirth, and that he’s been taken to the hearts of the fans during three memorable years on Wearside.
When he joined Sunderland during the summer of 2021, he was one of the first signings to arrive at the Stadium of Light under the umbrella of our new ‘data-driven recruitment’ model.
After falling short in the 2020/2021 League One playoffs under Lee Johnson and with discontent subsequently running high, Kristjaan Speakman and company had the chance to fully implement their new vision for Sunderland and to build a squad that was finally capable of escaping the third tier at what would be the fourth attempt.
At the time, Pritchard was considered quite a ‘high-profile’ arrival, and when he signed as a free agent following spells at Huddersfield and Norwich, there seemed to be a consensus that bringing him to the Stadium of Light was a solid enough move, even if fans of those other clubs hinted at a questionable attitude.
Alongside fellow summer arrival Corry Evans, Pritchard ticked the boxes marked ‘experience’ and ‘pedigree’, and after a reasonably slow start to his Sunderland career, during which time some fans speculated that he was too slight and not physically robust enough for the duels of League One, the home game against Oxford was a turning point.
Pritchard was superb that day, and although we could only draw with Karl Robinson’s side on a day where Lee Johnson was on the receiving end of yet more fan fury, that was the game that really launched his Sunderland career.
For the remainder of the 2021/2022 campaign- under Johnson and subsequently Alex Neil, who I always felt appreciated Pritchard’s tenacity and work rate- he remained a key player, with his composure, skill, and professionalism proving vital as we mounted a bid for promotion.
During the 2022 playoff final against Wycombe (a team against whom Pritchard had excelled during the 3-3 draw at Adams Park earlier in the season) I initially rated his display as 6/10 but on second, third and fourth viewing, I realised that was a ridiculously low mark, because he excelled on the vast Wembley pitch and was as influential as any of his teammates in ensuring that there was to be no more heartbreak at the national stadium.
It’s fair to say that during the one and a half seasons we’ve been back in the Championship, Pritchard’s form and influence has often fluctuated, but there have also been games- such as the challenging away trips to Millwall, where he’s made a real difference.
Indeed, I still believe that if he remains at the club and is utilised properly, he can influence games and play a key role in keeping things on an even keel.
Would we struggle if Pritchard were to leave this month? It very much seems to depend on who you ask.
Long term, the likes of Chris Rigg and Adil Aouchiche ought to be capable of stepping up and providing the creative spark that the former Norwich attacker has so often done, but it’s also fair to say that they’re both still quite raw and as Sunderland attempt to forge a new identity under Michael Beale, there are a multitude of selection questions that’ll need to be answered.
Whatever the future holds for the little magician, and wherever he’s playing his football when the transfer window closes at the end of the month, he can reflect on a Sunderland career that, despite some ups and downs, has undoubtedly been a success.
If he remains at the Stadium of Light for the rest of the season, so much the better, but if a parting of the ways is the eventual outcome, he’ll always have a place in the affections of those he’s represented so classily since 2021.