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January exit looks likely but Sunderland’s left-back changes sum up the season so far

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At 11.30am on Saturday, Reece James could have been forgiven for thinking that his Sunderland career was drifting away from him before it had even begun.

James was out the squad and potential opportunities looked few and far between.

SAFC coverage in association with John Hogg.

SAFC coverage in association with John Hogg.

The left-back had signed a one-year deal in the summer. An attacking player with experience of winning the League One title, he looked a perfect fit to take his place in Jack Ross’ starting XI.

Bryan Oviedo at that stage was very short odds to leave the club and Denver Hume remained an inexperienced youngster.

Hume quickly changed all of that, emerging as a genuine attacking threat and a player of real tenacity in defence.

That Oviedo drew so little concrete interest in he summer surprised everyone, but he quickly knuckled down to impress Ross.

His quality in the early stages of the season shone through.

After a stop-start 18 months as a Black Cat he was central to that extraordinary opening day catharsis, a wicked cross to the back post setting the tone for a productive few weeks.

But one wild kick against Peterborough has put him out of the equation for a month.

An injury to Hume, a real loss after such an encouraging set of performances, has sidelined him for two weeks longer.

All of a sudden, James has the chance to put down a marker and secure a regular place in the side.

Should he do that, then the likelihood of Oviedo leaving in January will surely increase even further.

That is not a knee-jerk reaction to his Peterborough red, but the reality of Sunderland’s financial situation.

Oviedo is one of the club’s highest earners, bringing in a wage that could pay two or three proven players not just at League One level, but at Championship level too.

Sunderland had budgeted for his summer departure and while his attitude has earned high praise behind the scenes, there is no doubting that he is something of a luxury.

Stewart Donald candidly admitted recently that Oviedo and Cattermole’s presence was a strain on the club’s wage bill that simply has to come down further.

Cattermole at the moment is an indispensible, talismanic presence.

That could change in the coming months if Dylan McGeouch is able to adapt to life in League One, but at the moment, there is no debate as to who the club would be keener to keep.

Should accceptable bids arrive, it remains possible that both could go.

Sunderland need to tighten their belts not just for strenghtening in January, but next summer, too.

It is a situation that ultimately underlines the challenges Jack Ross has faced since taking the Sunderland job.

Building a squad with so much uncertainty was a major challenge, and it is little wonder that he has been left with a lopsided squad.

While on this occasion it has proved useful, few managers would rather have the same number of left-backs as strikers.

But with so much up in the air, even the best made plans were tested to the limits.

On the pitch, it sums up a stop-start campaign, where formations and combinations have had to be tinkered with over and over again.

All three players have shown their quality in patches, but have faced their own challenges and frustrations.

There lies the story of the season so far for Jack Ross and his squad.