Benji Kimpioka's contract impasse explained and what comes next for Sunderland and the youngster
Benji Kimpioka gathers the ball and turns towards goal.
It’s 0-0 against Middlesbrough U23s and for the most part, Sunderland have struggled to make much of an attacking impression in the game.
Kimpioka wriggles free from his marker and drives into space, finds the run of Lee Connelly with a fine chipped pass and a penalty is given.
Connelly wants to take it but Kimpioka races to the ball and there’s no way he gives it up.
It’s comfortably despatched, goalkeeper sent the wrong way.
The forward was his team’s best attacking presence right throughout the game, the vast majority of the moves sparked by good hold-up play and good dribbling into dangerous positions.
As Elliott Dickman surmised after the game, this is Kimpioka at his best.
Determined, lively and with end product.
The issue is about doing this game in, game out.
“That’s Benji,” Dickman said.
“That’s what he does. He’s a handful, he likes to compete, he likes to makes thing difficult for centre-backs. They tend not to like that even though it shoudl be bread and butter for them.
“Fair play to Benji, he did well tonight, we just need to start seeing that a bit more consistently.
“He definitely had the bit between his teeth.”
You suspect that it had not been lost on Kimpioka that Jack Ross and his coaching staff were in the crowd, running the rule of their two new signings in what ultimately proved to be a 3-2 defeat.
A day previous, Kimpioka’s agent had gone on record with Roker Report and made clear that a new contrct would not be signed unless first team football was forthcoming.
The response from Ross suggested that had gone down very, very poorly.
So what’s happened, what comes next and will the impasse be resolved?
THE STORY SO FAR
Kimpioka is the kind of coaching challenge that Jack Ross, always happiest managing on the grass, relishes.
His raw attributes are promising.
Quick, strong enough and with an uncanny ability to get past players on the ball. Ross has described him as laidback, an enigma, a unique character to manage but one that he believes has potential.
It was never better summed up than his first run of senior minutes last season.
Kimpioka was arguably the biggest beneficiary of the Checkatrade Trophy campaign, pushing his way into first team contention with some lively displays.
Against Newcastle United U23s he was genuinely excellent, a figure of fun in the away end for his distinctive hairstyle. But he earned the last laugh, performing superbly and looking quite comfortably the most talented youngster on the pitch.
It was not all straightforward, though.
Earlier in the campaign, he had scored against Carlisle United but exasperated the backroom staff with some elements of his performance, mainly a lack of discipline off the ball and out of possession.
It summed up where he was at, still only a teenager: one with a lot of promise, but much to learn.
Sunderland were suitably convinced that a new deal should be offered and this judgement had been made even before the turn of the year.
Stewart Donald’s main regret over the Josh Maja saga was that by the time they had begun talks in earnest, the young striker was already turning heads with his exceptional finishing. It was already too late.
There was an eagerness to avoid the same fate with the Swedish youth international, even if it is clear that he was and is far behind Maja in his development.
Donald’s long-term vision for the club’s youngsters is a system that rewards them handsomely for breaking through into the senior setup, but also protects the club by triggering extensions when they hit a certain number of appearances.
It’s a sensible approach designed to avoid a repeat of the Maja scenario, where a sparkling run of form suddenly leaves the club vulnerable.
Progress with Kimpioka though, has been painfully slow.
In April Donald made some eye-catching comments, suggesting that he would not play until he committed his future.
Ross played that down and continued to keep Kimpioka around his squad, but he did not see a great deal of first team action after the Checkatrade campaign finished, and this season, he is yet to play a single senior minute.
A few key factors have counted against him.
Firstly, Charlie Wyke and Will Grigg have looked fitter and sharper.
Marc McNulty has arrived and looked every inch a Sunderland forward, and the space on the bench Kimpioka often won last season has been taken by Elliot Embleton.
Embleton is a year old than Kimpioka but most importantly, he has a season of excellent performances at senior level under his belt.
When called up in pre-season and during the campaign so far, he has looked composed and mature.
Against Accrington on Saturday he defended well from the right flank as the Black Cats saw out the game, and showed his quality in springing Aiden McGeady clear for a counter-attack that could and should have made it 4-1.
It’s hard to come up with a rational argument as to why Kimpioka should be ahead of him in the pecking order.
Clearly, that has seen frustration grow in the Kimpioka camp, explaining both his agent’s comments at the weekend, and why he has not signed what the club insist is a good contract offer on the table.
Ross, understandably, was withering in his assessment of the demand for first team mintues.
“You become a first team player when you play in the first team regularly,” he said.
“So once you prove you’re good enough to play in the first team regularly, you’re a first team footballer.”
Kimpioka has not had minutes yet but he trained regularly with the first team both through pre-season and the early weeks of the season.
The opportunity has been there and clearly, Ross does not feel the youngster has done enough.
In his pre-season outings, there was little end product to match his enthusiasm.
Perhaps it was telling, too, that after last night’s excellent display in the U23s, Dickman was full of praise but also caling for that level consistently.
WHAT NEXT AND HOW SIMILAR IS THIS TO THE JOSH MAJA SAGA?
The club are now in familiar territory as the January window approaches.
They will know that they are acutely vulnerable to losing Kimpioka on a free, with the potential for a pre-contract for the summer to be negotiated from the turn of the year.
Should Kimpioka go abroad, the compensation Sunderland receive will be minimal.
It was this bind that saw the club last January accept Bordeaux’s bid to make their swoop for Maja immediate.
As it stands, Kimpioka seems unlikely to play and therefore, unlikely to commit.
It therefore follows that a January sale is a strong possibility.
It goes without saying that Sunderland are in a far stronger position now than they were with Maja, who was an essential part of their immediate plan for promotion.
Kimpioka is without doubt a promising player and one that Ross and his staff genuinely believe can have a first team future.
The issue, though, is that he does not appear ready for that at this point, and his agent seemingly made clear that he has no interest in going on loan to develop further.
It’s a bold approach to take with a player without a senior league goal to his name.
Kimpioka is a popular figure and it may well be that an agreement can still be reached.
The player himself is ambitious and the reality now is that should he wish to try his hand elsewhere, the club are not in a particularly strong position.
Only Kimpioka can answer what his best for his career and his development.
He is not the finished product, far from it, but there is no doubting he has talent.
Ultimately, it simply underlines the need for Donald to successfully implement his vision for youth contracts.