The story of Benji Kimpioka's Sunderland revival and what happens next with his future still uncertain
Benji Kimpioka’s Sunderland career took another twist on Saturday afternoon as he rescued a valuable point for his team against Coventry City.
It marked a remarkable turnaround for the youngster, who looked out of the first-team picture a matter of weeks ago.
His contract status remains uncertain nevertheless.
So what’s happened, and what’s likely to come next?
We take a closer look…..
THE STORY SO FAR
Reflecting on the saga that ultimately saw Josh Maja leave the club in a hugely destabilising January transfer, Stewart Donald admitted his regret that talks had not been initiated sooner.
Jack Ross has rued the lack of planning around that issue ever since.
So talks with Benji Kimpioka began almost 18 months out from the expiration of his current deal.
Kimpioka had shown promise, particularly in an effervescent showing against Newcastle United U21s.
He was clearly a long way off Maja’s level, and Ross felt there were huge aspects of his game that needed improving, specifically his decision making and discipline out of possession.
There was talent there nevertheless and so talks began.
Little progress was made and so Donald told the Roker Rapport podcast in April that until he committed, he would not be part of the senior squad.
Ross played down those remarks shortly after but his first-team chances declined considerably, last seen in the 5-4 defeat to Coventry City.
A bit-part player in pre-season, his place in the pecking order was also affected by the return, excellent form and growing maturity of talented attacking midfielder Elliot Embleton.
There were no first-team opportunities at the beginning of the season and the situation came to a head in September.
Kimpioka’s agent, Martin Klette, told Roker Report that a deal would only be signed if reassurances were given regarding his status as a first-team player.
The comments were not well received behind the scenes, Ross withering in his response and insisting that a ‘good offer’ was on the table for the 19-year-old.
When Lee Connelly took a place in the senior squad for a Carabao Cup game shortly after at Kimpioka’s expense, his career on Wearside looked as good as over.
PHIL PARKINSON’S ARRIVAL
Circumstances changed in Kimpioka’s favour with the arrival of Phil Parkinson.
The new manager quickly began to lose his forward players to injury. Marc McNulty continued to see his season affected by niggling injuries, Embleton was already sidelined with a hamstring problem, while Charlie Wyke and Lynden Gooch already picked up relatively serious knocks.
He was also eager to offer a fresh start and assess the entirety of the options at his disposal, and so Kimpioka was given a chance to impress in training.
Parkinson said there has been no suggestion from Donald that he should not be included while the contract impasse continued.
As Ross had done before him, Parkinson saw a player that could potentially bring something different to his forward line.
Substitute cameos against Tranmere Rovers and Shrewsbury Town marked his reintegration and the leasing.com trophy clash with Leicester City U21s was marked out as a big opportunity.
Duncan Watmore had arguably been the key player for Parkinson in his early games but conscious of the clear need to manage his workload and ensure not too great a burden was placed on him, Kimpioka was given a chance to play off the right and show he could bring that same crucial pace and energy.
The Swede struggled, failing to make an impression in the final third but also showing that naivety and inexperience off the ball that can provide such a headache for coaches.
Little wonder, then, that against Coventry he was given a role in a central area and after his crucial equaliser, Parkinson praised the improvements he has made since he took charge.
“It was a calm finish, he backs himself and it is a confident finish,” Parkinson said.
“He is a confident lad anyway, since I have been here, the limited time training with him, he is starting to show more end product.
“When I first came in there was a lot of step-overs. If we had a seven a side in training, how many shots can you get away and goals can you score? He is working at that.”
Parkinson has said he has a big decision to make for Tuesday night’s visit of Burton Albion and with Wyke and McNulty nearing full fitness, Kimpioka needs to take any further opportunities.
In his own words, one goal can’t change everything, but it is a start and a chance that looked like it may well have been lost a matter of weeks ago.
WHAT KIMPIOKA SAID
Kimpioka is a popular figure behind the scenes, a player with whom Ross had a good relationship even as his agent’s remarks rankled.
It was clear to see why as he spoke after the game, revelling in his first league goal but grounded and very honest in the challenge he faces to become a regular senior player.
On his future, he was diplomatic but genuine in his affection for the club that has become a home.
“I’m not focusing on that at the moment,” he said.
“I’m just focusing on football, that’s what I love and what I live for.
“I’m just trying to put my mind on the ball and the pitch, and nothing else.
“I speak a lot to my brother and he just tells me, let the football do the talking. Do your talking on the pitch, focus on the pitch, and that will only help me with the other things.
“I’ve been here three years now, I’m familiar with the people and it’s a lovely place,” he added.
“Everyone is lovely, you can’t not love a place like this. I’m happy here and we’ll see what happens.”
SO WHAT NEXT?
Pragmatism has won the day for the time being.
Parkinson needs options up front while key players return to fitness and Kimpioka needs first-team minutes.
With the January window looming ever larger, the situation can’t continue that way indefinitely and if the impasse continues, Sunderland will be forced into a decision as to whether they look to cash in.
As with Maja, they would be compensated should Kimpioka leave on a free next summer but should he move abroad, the fee would be low.
Kimpioka’s goal against Coventry was well taken, but he still faces a challenge to establish himself in the squad when Wyke, McNulty and Gooch return.
A fearless player and all the better for it, but one with much room for improvement to be relied on from the start week in, week out.