There were eyebrows raised in May last year, as Belgium manager Marc Wilmots revealed his plan to replace the injured Vincent Kompany for the European Championships.
Jason Denayer, was his two word response.
Denayer’s composure was by some distance the shining light from the drab draw with Burnley
In the end, Denayer was largely overlooked, Thomas Vermaelen finding fitness and taking his place. Denayer was thrown into the fold for the hammering by Wales, undercooked and famously ‘sent for a hot dog’ by Hal Robson-Kanu’s Cruyff turn.
The campaign was a disaster for Wilmots, but we saw on Saturday why the much maligned boss had such high hopes for the Manchester City man. Why he was often willing to split up Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, perhaps the best partnership in the division, to accommodate him.
He is quick, good in the air, confident on the ball, and one of the finer readers of the game you will see.
It is always dangerous to draw too many conclusions from one game, but Denayer’s composure was by some distance the shining light from the drab draw with Burnley. Moyes wanted to know what Denayer could do at centre-half and his response was emphatic.
It seems remarkable that Denayer is still only 21 years of age, such is the maturity and intelligence with which he plays and speaks. As Sunderland look to draw a line under that disaster at Turf Moor, it is surely time for the loanee to have an extended run in defence.
Who plays alongside him is another matter entirely.
Watching Denayer in FA Cup action, the thought occurred that Sunderland’s best centre-half partnership is one that will perhaps never take to the Premier League field.
Lamine Kone’s fall from grace this season has been dramatic, the unsavoury drama regarding his contract situation at the start of the game somewhat cooling his cult status.
His form has been patchy. When Jamie Carragher hammered him on Monday Night Football earlier in the season, there were few dissenting voices on Wearside. Kone’s poor start to the season had just culminated in him losing a header in his own box to the 5ft 7in Alexis Sanchez.
There have been whispers of the vultures circling in January. Everton, Crystal Palace and West Ham have already been linked with a swoop, and the Black Cats may see his sale as a good way to raise capital.
He would likely command a significant fee but is not seen as irreplaceable in the way that Jermain Defoe or Jordan Pickford would be. With Ivory Coast likely to run to the latter stages of the African Cup of Nations, it would be no surprise if clubs abroad began to cast admiring glances, too.
Should he return, however, he could be the perfect foil for Denayer.
Sunderland, and Kone, have badly missed Younes Kaboul this season. The Frenchman has struggled to impress at Watford but his leadership and communication were a major asset in the second half of the last campaign. Months after his departure, Sunderland still look vulnerable to high balls. That defenders are still challenging for the same headers says everything about the pervading uncertainty at the back.
Yet Kone has been steadily improving, and his importance was demonstrated by the way the team folded after his injury at Turf Moor.
He would perhaps find the perfect foil in Denayer, who may not be as vocal as Kaboul but reads the game as well and would add a much needed sense of calm for his partner.
Between them, they would have just about everything a struggling side could wish for in a defensive partnership. Able to pass and move, but equally adept when the game gets tough and physical. Quick, strong, good in the air.
Perhaps it says much for Sunderland’s turbulence in recent years that it would again be a short-term solution.
Speculation regarding Kone’s future will persist, while Denayer is beginning to show that he could yet fill the Kompany void for club and country.
Together, however, they could yet have a major impact on Sunderland’s future.