Lee Johnson responds to Callum McFadzean's critics and the big left-back dilemma after Denver Hume's return

Lee Johnson has urged Callum McFadzean to have more belief in himself – as the Sunderland boss calls on one of his trio of left-backs to ‘step-up’ ahead of the run-in.

McFadzean has been a regular in the side in recent weeks as Denver Hume continues to feel his way back from a long-term injury, with January signing Jake Vokins only now nearing a return after a COVID-enforced absence.

But the former Plymouth and Bury man has come in for some criticism in recent weeks and struggled against the pacy and direct Mallik Wilks at Hull City on Tuesday evening.

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Johnson, while admitting his performance at the KCOM Stadium was far from his best, has backed McFadzean to come good – and believes the 27-year-old needs to have some more belief in his ability.

Lee Johnson responds to Callum McFadzean's critics and the big left-back dilemma after Denver Hume's return

"I think that he’s performed very well in that position at times,” said the Sunderland head coach.

"With Callum, he’s got to believe in himself. If the manager believes in you because he’s picking you every week then you’ve got to take that one step further.

"Callum, let’s be honest, was effectively a bit of a filler because he was a late signing. Denver Hume, obviously the main man if you like coming through the academy in that position, and then he finds himself being a real key part and a key member of the team.

"And he is, by the way. The lads love him to bits.”

"When you’re close to a group, you also feel the benefit of the human being and Callum is up there with as good as it gets in terms of a lad,” he continued.

"If Callum was being disruptive and his actions and behaviours weren’t conducive to a high performance environment then he’d be out the door – and that doesn’t matter whether it’s a striker who’s scored 30 goals or a young lad coming through at 17-years-old.

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"In terms of performance, I don’t think Cal had his top game the other day against Hull and against a good, strong opponent.

“But at the same time I could find you 10, 12 clips where he’s really been fantastic in terms of setting the move off or his defensive position.”

The external mood when it comes to McFadzean has not gone unnoticed by Johnson, who is keen to guard his players from such opinion.

It’s something the head coach experienced himself during a playing career which twice saw him player under his father, which naturally saw him draw further criticism than other players may have done.

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But Johnson knows that there are ways to come through such spells of criticism, with plenty of examples in the changing room at the Academy of Light.

"This is where we try and stay really steady with it, because we know we’re always at the mercy of this external opinion – whether that be a manager or a player,” he explained.

"I think the support is important because I would have thought there would be players who are in our squad who are now hailed as heroes that have also taken stick along the line.

"I was the biggest case example of that because I played for my Dad. You can imagine, when you add nepotism into that. I was lucky in one sense because we were pretty successful when we were together, but if it ever a mediocre level of success or not quite the level of expectation – that was coming down on me and on him via me very hard.

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"I really do believe that you can come through that and you can work on psychological tools.

“We cannot affect the way our families think of us, our teammates, our fans, but we can take the feedback and learn the lessons.

"I always think when you come through that, you get more adulation then.

"I think that Callum, through all our winning sequence, was absolutely outstanding through very difficult circumstances – without having to be able to have a rest.”

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Now, of course, McFadzean is not the only option available to Johnson on the left side of his back four.

Denver Hume’s return to the fold has added some welcome competition – but the academy graduate has started just one game since his return from injury.

That, says Johnson, was always the plan in terms of managing his minutes.

But with a potential play-off campaign approaching, the Sunderland chief wants to see one of his left-backs ‘step-up’ and stake their claim for a starting spot in the final weeks of the campaign.

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"Obviously we have competition now. We’ve got Denver back in and we’ve got Jake Vokins now back.

"I think Denver, if we’re talking about that position in the team, from a long-term injury has got to be dripped fed in.

"If you look at the minutes he’s played, it’s been quite considered in terms of the build-up of the minutes and then a rest.

"We’ve certainly got decisions in that one and I want somebody in that position to step-up – especially if we do end-up in that play-off situation.

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"I want to know that I can trust the physicality, mentality and the technical ability – but mainly the ability to dig deep in those moments, whether it’s a defensive action or whether it’s a delivery in the final third.

"There’s so many areas, because you’ve also got an opponent to deal with and cope with.”

A message from the Football Clubs Editor:

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Your support is much appreciated. Richard Mennear, Football Clubs Editor