Josh Maja to Bordeaux: What happened, what's next and what Sunderland will change in future
On New Year's Day, Josh Maja arguably delivered his best performance in a Sunderland shirt.
There was the trademark goal, darting in front of his marker to score a crucial winner.
It was his all-round contribution that really caught the eye, though.
Thriving off a battling performance from Charlie Wyke, Maja was inventive, vibrant and a complete treat to watch.
Taken off in the 88th minute, the 20-year-old was given a standing ovation by 8,000 travelling supporters, every one singing his name with gusto.
It felt significant because a deadline to make a decision on a new contract was fast approaching.
This didn't look like a player pushing for the exit door.
Even when the deadline passed without a signature and Sunderland's disappointment with proceedings was made public, Maja continued to play well.
He seemed genuinely unaffected by the noise around him, his relationship with Jack Ross and his team-mates was good.
Even if hopes were dwindling that he would commit his long-term future to the club, there were options in play that could see him play a pivotal part in the promotion push.
It was not without reason that Jack Ross spoke freely about a deal brokered for Lewis Morgan during his time at St Mirren.
As they pushed for promotion last year the Morgan situation, very similar to Maja's, threatened to overshadow everything.
Celtic signed him and loaned him back, Morgan going on to thrive in the second half of the season.
Ross thought Maja could do the same and there were Premier League clubs who saw value in a deal of that nature.
The situation changed rapidly in the early part of this week, however, and before long Maja's future as a Sunderland player was at an end. Some made a move, with West Ham and Cardiff the most heavily touted, but it seems too little, too late.
He looks likely to become a Bordeaux player in the coming days but even if he does not, there now looks to be no way back in terms of a first team future.
For months, a curious dynamic has played out behind the scenes.
When talks initially began, there was significant optimism that a deal would be struck. That was mainly because Maja was open in his desire to stay, even saying so publicly in September. He had forged a strong relationship with Ross and his backroom staff.
A bright and easy-to-like youngster, Maja was regularly pushing for feedback and analysis of his performances, thriving on the coaching he was getting.
For a perfectionist like Ross, Maja's eagerness to learn and his self-critical streak was something to admire.
Fitting him in the team was not always easy, particularly away from home where he often struggled to effectively lead the line. His goalscoring was nevertheless nothing short of vital and he was a big part of the long-term planning at the club.
So Ross was consistently protective of him in the press, even as doubts about his future began to grow significantly.
For all Maja himself seemed keen to stay, negotiations were difficult and Stewart Donald has been open in his disappointment with negotiations.
Missed meetings, late arrivals at meetings.
It became increasingly clear that a move could be in the offing and in mid-December Ross showed his first signs of frustration, calling for clarity.
Yet as Maja kept playing and kept playing well, there was some hope a resolution could be reached.
That was quickly dashed when Maja himself made clear this week that he wanted to leave.
Sunderland were left in no doubt that as things stood, the 20-year-old was set on a move abroad. As it was now coming from the player himself, a long, frustrating saga moved towards a surprisingly swift ending.
Right from the off, a pre-contract move abroad was the worst case scenario for the club.
Compensation rules do not favour the side losing a player, particularly one who has not been at the club right through his youth development.
That was underlined in 2016 when Moussa Dembele, one of the brightest young talents in the Championship, moved across the border to Celtic and Fulham earned just £500,000.
Sunderland would have secured even less for Maja.
They knew, however, that it was a distinct possibility and in that sense forces in football were against them.
It is hard to imagine, talented as the player is, that five years ago a promising League One striker would attract genuine interest from sides nearing the top half of the top leagues in Europe.
The demand for British talent on the continent has gone through the roof and the group representing Maja have been as successful as anyone tapping into that.
They have brokered highly successful moves taking the likes of Jadon Sancho, Ademola Lookman and Reiss Nelson to the Bundesliga.
If a deal with Bordeaux can be agreed, Sunderland will at least recoup some compensation.
Maja is a player that Bordeaux's new ownership have identified as fitting into the desire to recruit youngsters with high potential.
A deal for AC Milan's 18-year-old defender Raoul Bellanova is also on the cards.
Maja will have to thrive for the Black Cats to get the full £3.5 million but will likely be guaranteed around half of that and have a good chance of landing more.
Crucially, they should also be able to secure a sell-on clause that will protect them if he reaches his full potential.
In the circumstances, it is a decent deal that should give them some scope for re-investment in the coming week.
The big question is whether Sunderland could have done anything differently to avoid this unsatisfactory ending.
The public deadline did not work in terms of bringing a resolution early in the month, but it did not change anything either. By then, it seems the decision to leave had basically already been taken.
Maja, without question, should have been signed up on better terms long ago.
Long before the new owners arrived.
Though he picked up a nasty knee injury towards the end of pre-season campaign, it was clear in the summer of 2017 that Maja was a player of serious potential.
Even if his form after breaking into the first team picture in the second half of the season was indifferent, all the indications were that he had a real chance of making it. His finishing abilities and superb technique did not suddenly emerge after one summer break.
Yes, money was tight and the future uncertain, but surely that makes exciting young prospects even more important.
Takeover turmoil and the need to overhaul a playing squad meant that renewal talks went on the backburner until the season was underway.
By then, Maja was already hot property and as the situation comes to a close, it is tempting to wonder whether it was already too late.
The process has been a gruelling one for Donald and he has vowed to change the club's approach.
It is not just because of Maja, either.
The club were vulnerable when it came to Lynden Gooch and if not for the 23-year-old's bond to the club, they could have lost out there, too.
Speaking on the Roker Rapport podcast at the start of the month, the Chairman said contracts would be restructured in future.
"The contracts that we inherited are ridiculous from the football club's perspective," he said.
"Think about it logically, these lads sign two or three-year deals in our academy.
"Common sense tells you in the first two years he'll be learning his way, and then in the last year he's got a chance of breaking through.
"Surely, we should protect ourselves with extensions by saying, if Josh Maja or Lynden Gooch make five or ten first team appearances, we get an extra year with a higher wage.
"At the moment, a player gets in the first team and then there's a value to them, and we've got no protection. "It will not happen in the future. I'm not doing this every six or 12 months.
"What we should do is say to a Josh Maja, if you play five games we get an extra year and you get double your wage, or if you play 20 it doubles again and we get another year, etc.
"Then we're protected.
"I'll give a commitment to Sunderland fans now. We may lose one or two but we won't have this in future.
"We'll be fair to the player but we'll be fair to ourselves. It is basic common sense."
It is basic common sense and a move that would have significantly altered the dynamic as Maja broke through this season.
Now, the Black Cats are left searching for a replacement.
It will not be an easy task.
Maja's goals have been important when Sunderland have played well and been absolutely vital when their levels have dipped.
Alongside Jon McLaughlin, he has been the biggest difference-maker in games.
Will Grigg has already been identified as a player who can replace his goals.
The Black Cats will almost certainly return with a concerted push to land the 27-year-old. Aside from Maja, there are few players who you rather having bearing down on goal in a tense League One game.
The question then is if they go for another forward, which they almost certainly will, whether they sign another orthodox striker or whether they sign someone to play off the main forward, as Maja has done in recent weeks.
As for Maja himself, it is an extraordinary gamble to take at this stage of his career.
Sunderland fans will be disappointed to lose him midway through a season, the job very much half done.
The manner of his impending departure will undoubtedly leave a bitter taste behind the scenes, particularly given how careful Ross was to look after him when it would have been easier to take the other approach.
The other side of the coin is that on a pittance in football terms, Maja has fired Sunderland to an outstanding position in the table.
It has uld been a two-and-a-half year venture that has worked well for everyone.
Is it the right move?
It is undoubtedly a lucrative one but in fairness, if he is going there to play, it is a major move and a platform to launch his career to a very high level. Ligue 1 is not the best division in Europe but is one that many clubs recruit from.
Technically, he is good enough to make the step up.
His finishing is outstanding and will prove so at any level. As his is first touch and his general game awareness. The key will be whether he can impose himself on games and cope with the speed of it.
Even more important will be whether Bordeaux, or any other club for that matter, have the patience to persist with him through the quiet games.
If they don't, then there will be regrets aplenty.
Maja's exit has felt inevitable for some time.
The question was always going to be on what terms.
It is a shame that it seems set to be one marked by rancour and disappointment.
His rise has been one of the most enjoyable Sunderland stories to watch and one that feels as if it is coming to premature end.