Assessing Dylan McGeouch's Sunderland exit and what it could mean for returning young midfielder
It was one of Sunderland’s first January deals and almost certainly the most inevitable.
This was a deal that had almost happened six months previous, as Dylan McGeouch weighed up his Black Cats future.
It had been a frustrating first season on Wearside, though as the midfielder himself said last night, not one without its high points.
Right from his first appearance in a red-and-white shirt, McGeouch’s acquisition looked like an excellent bit of business.
He arrived riding the crest of a wave, part of an immensely successful Hibernian midfield alongside John McGinn. McGinn has gone on to excel at Aston Villa, but most who watched them dovetail at Easter Road said McGeouch had been every bit his equal.
It was easy to see why in a ruthless showing against St Mirren in that first pre-season.
If the weakness of that side, still reeling from Ross’ departure, offered cause not to get carried away, then a composed display against Middlesbrough a week later was a different matter.
Sadly, an injury picked up that night curtailed his progress and in so many ways summed up the frustration he would often go on to suffer.
After the heartache of the Wembley defeat to Charlton Athletic, McGeouch stopped in the mixed zone to speak with Scottish reporters.
He had been left out of the squad for that game, and admitted that he had a big decision to make.
Derek McInnes was well aware and made a major push to recruit him.
For a while, it looked like it might well happen.
Jack Ross was determined to bring in George Dobson from Walsall, a midfielder whose energy and leadership as Walsall fought the drop the previous season had so impressed him.
Operating at the time under a one-in, one-out policy, it had seemed as if McGeouch would have to make way. Certainly, that was the preference of the Black Cats hierarchy.
Ross, though, had not given up on McGeouch, and the midfielder himself had not given up on being a success in League One.
Ross got his way, McInnes moved for Scunthorpe United midfielder Funso Ojo and McGeouch started the season at the Stadium of Light.
In both campaigns, there were signs of what McGeouch could bring.
After the Checkatrade Trophy final, McGeouch was brought into midfield and was outstanding in two away wins, at Accrington Stanley and Rochdale, that had seemingly brought the Black Cats to the verge of automatic promotion.
They were showings that belied suggestions that McGeouch did not have the energy or creativity required. He played box-to-box, on top of the game and Ross admitted this was the player he needed and wanted.
Equally impressive were two simply superb showings against Premier League opposition in the Carabao Cup this season.
These were more disciplined, McGeouch in a defensive role as Sunderland ceded possession. His awareness and intelligence were second to none.
Ultimately, though, the frustration was that injuries were a little too persistent, and McGeouch could also fairly claim he did not get the patience many others were afforded.
A solid display against Luton Town in January was followed by a long exile from the first team. Both he and Reece James were underrated players in the side that went on that long winning run at the beginning of the winter.
But if Ross had not always seemed convinced, then the arrival of Phil Parkinson quite clearly spelled the end.
McGeouch never seemed likely to fit in under the new manager and when he was given a chance, it felt like something of a token gesture.
McGeouch lined up alongside Grant Leadbitter, the pair both short of match fitness, in a midfield two that was predictably overrun by Leicester City’s vibrant U21s.
Coming in to this window, there seemed little left to gain for either party in prolonging the partnership.
The question now is what Parkinson does next.
Another central midfielder is a must.
No matter what system he employs, whether it be the 4-2-3-1 used at the start of his tenure, or the 3-4-3 used most recently, there is a major onus on the midfield two to provide dynamism and energy.
Key to his plans for the side is ‘locking in’ attacks, committing bodies forward but ensuring that there isn’t too great a vulnerability to the counter.
The demands in midfield, on the ball and off it, are significant.
Both George Dobson and Max Power have proved in spells that they can do it, but he will want another option.
McGeouch’s departure coincides intriguingly with the return of Ethan Robson from his loan at Grimsby Town.
Not unlike McGeouch, injuries at key times have had a major impact on his development at Sunderland.
He has six months to run on his current deal, and at 23, it is beginning to feel like now or never on Wearside for a player who ultimately needs senior football above else.
At face value, he surely has every chance.
His spell at Grimsby showed his eye for goal, while he also has the height and athleticism to impress off the ball.
It is this part of his game that he feels has most benefited from two loan spells, eye-opening after long spells in the more sedate environment of U23 football.
Whether Parkinson is prepared to take the risk remains to be seen.
Confirming that the midfielder would train with the Black Cats this week, he also confirmed that there had already been enquiries from other clubs regarding another loan.
That did not seem overly encouraging for his immediate prospects in red-and-white, but with the squad currently on the thin side, there may well be a chance to catch the eye.
There would be few more uplifting things to watch in the second half of the season, given how much the club means to Robson and how unlucky he has been to miss out on his chance to shine so far.