It had become a running gag on social media, podcasts and on the concourses at the Stadium of Light during the buildup to games.
It’s been X amount of days since a Sunderland striker scored a goal in a competitive game. That was Joe Gelhardt against Huddersfield back in April 2023...and he wasn’t even their player!
This statistic was usually followed by a gripe about how we’d signed four strikers during the summer and not one of them had managed a goal in the league. Journalists gleefully highlighted it and fans used it as concrete proof that our summer transfer business had ‘failed’.
However, as Nazariy Rusyn made the kind of near post run we haven’t seen from a Sunderland attacker in quite some time before sliding the ball past Freddie Woodman against Preston on Monday, Gelhardt finally lost his status as the answer to a pub quiz question and Rusyn’s own career in red and white finally began in earnest.
It was a great moment on a day when we picked up a victory that’ll send us into Saturday’s FA Cup tie against Newcastle on a high, and it’ll doubtless be one of the most popular goals scored by a Sunderland player this season.
It was a strike the likes of which we’ve seldom scored this season: direct, efficient and clinical. Rusyn’s movement and awareness were both top class, and his stabbed finish from a Jack Clarke pass was that of a true poacher. All very, very encouraging.
Despite the fact that goals in general haven’t been particularly hard to come by during 2023/2024, the issue of our strikers firing blanks has cast a shadow over Sunderland’s season at various points.
This wasn’t necessarily a huge concern when we were hammering Southampton 5-0 or beating Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park, but the reliance on Clarke has often been glaring and whenever the dazzling winger didn’t deliver (which was very rarely) the spotlight inevitably fell on our centre forwards, all of whom have found the going tough.
Mason Burstow’s loan spell from Chelsea hasn’t paid dividends, Eliezer Mayenda hasn’t quite hit his straps, and young Portuguese striker Hemir has been taken out of the firing line for his own good, in many respects.
So, what of the Ukrainian, who we spent the whole summer attempting to sign, was officially unveiled as a Lads player with a gloriously theatrical video filmed at Penshaw Monument, and has since found himself on the fringes and rarely given a genuine opportunity to show what he can do?
Surely it’s now time to give him an extended run in the team and Saturday’s FA Cup clash, during which he’s bound to show little respect to the black and white backline if chosen, feels like another excellent opportunity.
Based on what we’ve seen so far, Rusyn seems to enjoy the challenge of giving defenders something to think about, and that’ll be needed when Newcastle pitch up on Wearside.
The bigger picture is that business undoubtedly needs to be done.
Assuming that Burstow’s loan spell from Chelsea is cut short (which would be unfortunate, because he’s clearly a good young player but it simply hasn’t worked out for him) there’ll be space freed up for Sunderland to dip into the market for the elusive ‘proven, experienced Championship striker’ that many fans are hopeful of signing.
With the Ross Stewart windfall currently gathering interest, there’s no reason for us not to seek out more firepower, but whether we can find a player who ticks every box is a different matter entirely. There’ll doubtless be plenty of names linked with a move to Wearside over the coming weeks, and hopefully one of them will materialise.
In the meantime, however, surely it’s Rusyn’s opportunity to show what he’s capable of, and if we can play to his strengths and get the ball into the right areas, he’ll hopefully do the rest as he showed on New Year’s Day.
Away from what actually happens on the pitch, the human element of Rusyn’s Sunderland switch is something that’s often overlooked.
If you or I left a war-torn country (without our family, as is the case with him) and settled somewhere new, would we expect to be given a period of grace as we settled down, before even thinking about the business of playing football? I think so.
Frankly, it makes little difference whether you’re a native of Ukraine or Brazil- you simply can’t fail to recognise the support and affection of an entire stadium who are willing you to succeed, and Rusyn’s smile as he celebrated with his teammates seemed to be proof of that.
He’s clearly experienced a good deal of upheaval since making the switch from his homeland, but if he can form a close working relationship with Michael Beale and continue to establish connections with his teammates, his confidence will increase and so should his potency on the pitch.
Nobody would want to see Rusyn fail, even those who are sceptical of our recruitment and are still getting to grips with the markets in which we’re now scouting. He’s a Sunderland player, he’s been taken to the hearts of the supporters, and let’s hope that his maiden goal in red and white can be the catalyst for continued progress and meaningful contributions.