Generally speaking, tweets from Sunderland’s X account that begin with the somewhat ominous phrase CLUB COMMUNICATION generally aren’t about to deliver positive updates, such as a lifetime contract for Jack Clarke, the signing of Amad on a nine-year deal, or the news that Yann M’Vila is returning to Wearside to add some muscle to our midfield.
And that’s exactly how it was on Saturday, as mere minutes before our starting eleven was named to take on Stoke City, a terse statement was published, informing an already-bruised fanbase that Alex Pritchard had withdrawn himself from the squad to face the Potters and was seeking a move elsewhere.
Club Communication: Alex Pritchard— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) January 27, 2024
Needless to say, the reaction was immediate and polarised, with many fans taking a ‘no player is bigger than the club’ stance and bidding Pritchard a vicious farewell, and others wasting no time in laying into Kristjaan Speakman and the club hierarchy accusing them of disrespect and of not being as accommodating towards a fan favourite as they should’ve been.
Who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong, if indeed that’s the scenario here?
We’ll probably never know, but for me, the exchange between Pritchard and Michael Beale when he was substituted at Portman Road was telling. It was obvious at that stage that all wasn’t well and that his future was in severe doubt, and that’s exactly what happened a mere two games later.
This is another one of those classic ‘he said/she said’ situations where neither side will admit they were on the wrong side of the argument, and it’ll be interesting to hear whether Speakman offers any insights into what’s gone on during his post-transfer window podcast appearance.
Nevertheless, the inference that Pritchard had effectively downed tools as he attempts to engineer an exit from the Stadium of Light seems to represent the point of no return, and to say the least, it feels like a sad and messy end to a Sunderland career that’s encompassed so many highs and memorable moments since his arrival in 2021.
Optics and perceptions matter and for many, the idea that he’d resorted to such measures was a step too far, and it was fortunate that the development didn’t affect our mindset when the game kicked off. Frankly, we should’ve left such sideshows behind years ago, and this mustn’t become habitual.
Was the fact that we looked much more energised and motivated against Stoke on Saturday a byproduct of this situation? Was there an air of defiance within the group that said, ‘We’ll do the business today with or without Pritchard and show that we can thrive without him’?
Needless to say, this whole situation shouldn’t have come to pass, and given that we’re supposed to be a forward thinking football club with aspirations of success, it feels as though all parties should’ve sat down, thrashed out some kind of solution, and ensured that it was nipped in the bud way before we arrived at this stage.
Speakman and Pritchard are two talented individuals with egos to match, but what seems to have been overlooked here is that it’s not about either of them. Instead, it’s about what’s best for Sunderland AFC, both now and in the future.
It’s Pritchard’s right to try and hold out for a deal that he feels is fair or to request a transfer if that wasn’t forthcoming, but as unpalatable as it might be, it’s also the club’s prerogative to stand firm and offer a different deal if they so wish.
If they were willing to let a promotion-winning head coach depart after rumours of discontent behind the scenes, they’ll have no compunction in allowing a player to move on, regardless of popular he might be, and they’re not prone to allowing fan discontent to influence their thinking, either.
In terms of how this might impact us going forward, the picture is mixed.
I do believe that Pritchard remains our best out-and-out number ten, not least because he’s the most experienced option we have in that position and his work rate is generally a key asset for us.
However, to consider the possible upside of him moving on, it’ll almost certainly lead to more game time for the likes of Chris Rigg, Abdoullah Ba and Adil Aouchiche, all of whom are talented but still quite raw, and will need as much time on the pitch as they can get for the remainder of the campaign.
Pritchard’s seemingly imminent departure won’t destroy our prospects for the season, even though the negative headlines are something we could do without. However, from adversity, opportunities for others will arise and it’s going to lead to some new names hopefully establishing themselves in Sunderland’s team.
A unified dressing room is absolutely essential at this stage and Beale, who remains under intense pressure after his recent comments, needs every single one of his players onside and fully plugged into what he’s trying to implement.
There were some promising signs of that against Stoke, and all we can do is hope for a swift solution, wish Pritchard the very best for the future, and move on.
It’s a shame that it’s seemingly ending like this, but such is the cutthroat nature of football, and for all of the progress we’ve made, it’s a sharp warning that we’re still vulnerable to contractual standoffs from time to time. Such situations demand that we look forward and not back, and hopefully that’s exactly what’s going to happen.