Jason Denayer could be key in Sunderland's Premier League survival scrap
It can be difficult to comprehend that Jason Denayer is still only 21.
In a short career he has seen and done more than many players will manage in a career.
He has played in the Old Firm at Celtic Park and in that most demanding of environments, kept a clean sheet. Won the Scottish title, and the cup, landing the young player of the year honour in the process.
Twelve months later, he found himself in arguably the fiercest rivalry of them all. Galatasaray v Fenerbahce, the Turkish Cup Final. Another clean sheet, another win, even an assist for the Belgian. There were no Graeme Souness style antics from Denayer, the former Liverpool boss famously planting a flag in the middle of the Fenerbahce pitch after leading his side to victory.
Denayer seems an altogether more relaxed character, through the lows as well as the highs. That perhaps explains why there was no hangover to his difficult summer. Having been expected to be a key part of Belgium’s Euro 2016 team, he was thrown into the action at the quarter-final stage.
Undercooked and with few experienced heads around him, it ended in galling defeat.
Denayer’s composure, however, is increasingly looking like it could be a key factor in Sunderland’s Premier League fate.
When he signed from Manchester City, the end of the window was looming. It looked like a last-ditch attempt to add loan cover to the squad. Sunderland have had their fair share of those, over the years.
Slowly but surely, with the club in the midst of an unprecedented injury crisis, he is beginning to look integral.
He has stepped into midfield for the most part, not a natural berth but one that he has undertaken with diligence.
It isn’t a big deal. You suspect there isn’t a great amount he considers to be a big deal.
“My place is a central defender, but it’s not a problem for me [playing midfield], I feel OK, I like it.”
Yet there were so signs of rust when dropped back to the heart of defence against Burnley.
Sunderland turned a 4-1 defeat against the same opponent just a week earlier into a valuable clean sheet. There were a few hairy moments, a few chances missed, but it was a step forward.
Denayer was excellent, reading the game well, sweeping up behind Papy Djilibodji, who understandably looked nervy after what had happened at Turf Moor.
Of course, for Denayer, it wasn’t really a big deal.
“It was difficult, very physical, a lot of long balls, with the second balls you never know but I think we defended well, the clean sheet was important for us.
“We put a lot of energy into the duel, I think we tried to play but sometimes you don’t have a choice, you just have to play a different style.
“It’s good for me to play there [centre-half], I was happy. It’s like riding a bike, you don’t forget it.”
It provides a welcome relief for David Moyes, who would perhaps have been concerned about the identity of his defence for the rest of January and early February.
Djilibodji described his relationship with Lamine Kone as ‘perfect’, and he certainly suffered when the Ivory Coast man was substituted after suffering injury at Turf Moor.
Denayer, however, has offered some hope of being a more than able deputy while Kone chases African Cup of Nations glory, revealing the simple but effective conversation the two shared before taking the field in the FA Cup third round.
“We were speaking before in the changing room, when Papy went for the ball I would have to go back, when I went to head the ball he would have to go back. I think we did OK.”
Denayer’s future will be fascinating, particularly at a time when Manchester City are linked with moves for a plethora of central defenders. One of those is Virjil van Dijk, who become something of a mentor for Denayer at Celtic. The two could make a formidable partnership.
Before then, however, Denayer faces a challenging few months at Sunderland. Starting with Stoke City at home, then another daunting trip to Turf Moor for the replay. Not that Denayer is too troubled.
“We’ll just have to deal with it.”
Sunderland are certainly much more likely to survive with him in the team, hence the panicked questions as to whether an injury picked up in the Burnley game was serious.
“It’s OK, it’s just a knock.” No big deal.