How Sunderland midfielder Carl Winchester made defensive spot his own in Lee Johnson's side
Not many would have foreseen it – least not likely the man himself.
Sunderland had hit a lull in their League One meeting with Accrington Stanley at the Stadium of Light before Aiden McGeady was able to thread a delicate pass through for the on-rushing Carl Winchester.
The Northern Ireland international took one look before confidently sweeping the ball beyond James Trafford to restore the Black Cats’ lead – a lead they would hold to secure their spot at the top of the table.
It’s the second time Winchester has found himself on the scoresheet this season after a somewhat fortuitous strike against AFC Wimbledon. Impressive for a full-back – even more so when you consider he is central midfielder being deployed as an emergency right-back in Lee Johnson’s side.
The transition Winchester has made to slot in on the right of a new-look Sunderland defence in just six league fixtures has been nothing short of remarkable.
When Johnson’s side returned for pre-season against Spennymoor Town in late June there were plenty of raised eyebrows as Winchester lined up as part of Johnson’s backline.
But with the emergence of the in-form Dan Neil and the returning Elliot Embleton alongside Luke O’Nien, who is finally being given his run at the heart of Sunderland’s midfield, Winchester’s chances of first team opportunities appeared to be slim.
But to the Northern Irishman’s credit he has flourished in the embryonic stages of the season with several commanding displays.
Winchester was signed as a midfielder from Forest Green Rovers back in January and may have had a tendency to step inside in search of winning the ball back.
Instead, the 28-year-old has remained disciplined in his duty as a conventional full-back – complementing the system by not only getting forward and offering support in attack, producing crosses and as we have already seen, offering a goal threat, but by being measured defensively, tracking runners and bringing a midfielders tenacity into the back four.
Johnson is familiar with Winchester having managed him at Oldham Athletic before he made the switch to Cheltenham Town but even he can’t have expected such a promising transition.
“Inclusive of the data, Carl was the right player to add to our squad.” Johnson said at the time of his arrival.
“He is a good player who is in the prime of his career, and his versatility means he can play in a number of positions, ensuring he will also bring depth to our squad.”
That versatility has become vital for Johnson with Winchester’s uplifting form cooling the concerns of supporters for an experienced right back to be brought into the club.
While the acquisition of Niall Huggins shows promising signs for the future as a more traditional fullback, Winchester’s purple patch appears to have cemented him as the No1 choice for the position going forward.
Of course, Winchester has his limitations; he may not be overly blessed with pace, there will be mistakes and times throughout the season where he gets caught out as he continues to shape himself into a fullback.
But it is testament to his character and the traits Johnson is looking for in his side that he has been able to get his head down and work hard at making the position his own.