THE CULT hero status of Ji Dong-won has barely been in proportion to his contribution on the field.
Other than his stoppage-time winner against Manchester City – which admittedly was one of the more iconic moments of Martin O’Neill’s reign – the South Korean has undergone a maiden campaign in the Premier League that has generally followed the modest hopes on his arrival.
Yet Ji, unlike fellow rookie forward newcomer Connor Wickham, has become a toast of the terrace anthem – perhaps due to the novelty of Sunderland having a Korean in their ranks, or perhaps because his name fits into the chant vacated by Steed Malbranque.
Novelty has a limited shelf-life though and Ji needs to start justifying his place in Sunderland’s squad on merit next season, particularly if O’Neill suitably boosts his attacking ranks over the summer as expected.
There will be no leeway or excuses of settling in next time around. Ji will be a 21-year-old striker, familiar with the demands of the top flight.
So a first start under O’Neill at Craven Cottage yesterday was an intriguing barometer of Ji’s progress in his first nine months on Wearside.
The opening exchanges didn’t bode well as the former Chunnam Dragons man spent more time on his backside than threatening Fulham’s goal as he laboured to get his balance on a pitch that proved troubling underfoot for Lee Cattermole and Stephane Sessegnon, too.
But Ji began to improve and he certainly appears to have a better grasp of the positional demands of playing as a centre-forward leading the line.
A key problem that both Steve Bruce and O’Neill have faced is Ji’s desire to do too much – racing around to cover every square inch of the turf, rather than lingering on the last man or consuming the attention of a battle-scarred centre-half.
There were moments when Ji did succumb to that trap, most notably in the first half when he dropped to an almost right-wing-back role in front of John O’Shea on a couple of occasions.
But, by and large, he proved a decent foil for Sessegnon and, in terms of the basics, Ji has the tools at his disposal to lay the ball off and link the play – a facet demonstrated with the well-weighted first-time lay-off into the path of Phil Bardsley for Sunderland’s goal.
There are still two glaring deficiencies that Ji needs to address though.
Physically, the striker is currently too much of a soft touch, repeatedly brushed off the ball yesterday, most notably by Brede Hangeland as the Sunderland man attempted to play with his back to goal.
Even more significantly, Ji barely posed a goal threat and it’s difficult to make a case for a frontman if he doesn’t offer that bread and butter asset.
But, on the evidence of yesterday, Ji is on an upward curve. The bigger question is perhaps whether O’Neill feels the gradient of that slope would be steeper if he was out on loan.
O’Neill hardly waxed lyrical on Ji afterwards, although there was at least an acknowledgement of some plus points from his striker.
“Overall, I thought there were some encouraging signs – that was Ji’s first start under me and I knew he would get tired after the hour,” he said.
“But I thought there were some encouraging signs.”
Not for the first time this season though, Sunderland’s troubles stemmed from the inability of Ji’s more established fellow frontmen to find the net.
Admittedly, Fulham could have run out with a more convincing victory if it wasn’t for the second-half reflexes of Simon Mignolet, yet Sunderland calved out opportunities that any away side should relish.
Sessegnon inconceivably opted to beat a defender rather than hitting a speculative first-time effort, Nicklas Bendtner curled high and handsomely wide and Fraizer Campbell contrived to spurn the clearest opportunity of the lot by slicing wide with minimal conviction.
Will any of this have surprised O’Neill? Not in the slightest. As he tellingly commented, when asked last week, he is well aware by now of the varying abilities of those at his disposal.
The bigger question is how many strikers O’Neill requires to restore some of the gusto to Sunderland’s attack which drifted away so swiftly last season as Darren Bent, then Danny Welbeck and finally Asamoah Gyan departed Wearside.
With Gyan set to complete a permanent move to the desert and little possibility of Bendtner remaining at the Stadium of Light beyond Sunday, O’Neill is hardly flush with an array of options.
Neither Wickham nor Ji have yet proved they are capable of being a regular Premier League starter, while Campbell will have little mitigation next season for his injury turmoil of the past two years.
Realistically, O’Neill needs at least a couple of frontmen to join the ranks alongside Campbell and Sessegnon, with those quartet all charged with the task of reaching double figures – a feat none of Sunderland’s strikers are likely to manage this time around.
However willing he may be and whatever the improvements he is making under O’Neill, Ji can still not yet be counted as a viable option to be part of that four-strong strike force.