Pierre Ekwah's Sunderland situation with ex-West Ham man pushing for more Championship opportunities
“Go on Pierre,” urged Sunderland head coach Tony Mowbray from the back of the main stand at Eppleton CW.
Pierre Ekwah had just received the ball in front of his side’s backline during an under-21s fixture against Stoke City and was making a powerful run through midfield.
There was a sense of excitement as the Black Cats midfielder motored past Stoke’s No 10 Sonny Singh, formerly of Sunderland, and strode into the opposition’s half.
Then there was a collective ‘aww’ as Ekwah conceded possession when it seemed like he’d done the hard part.
The 21-year-old appears to have the tools and physical presence to be a long-term asset in Sunderland’s first team, after signing a four-and-a-half-year deal on Wearside for an undisclosed fee from West Ham in January.
Since then, Ekwah has made four Championship appearances off the bench, while the senior side’s lack of options in central midfield have led to some calls for more game time.
With Sunderland captain Corry Evans set to miss the rest of season with an ACL injury, Dan Neil has been moved into an unfamiliar holding midfield role but struggled in recent matches against strong counter-attacking sides.
So could Ekwah provide an alternative as the Black Cats look to end a run of three consecutive league defeats?
Well despite a few misplaced passes in the first half of Monday's under-21s fixture, which Sunderland won 4-1, this was an encouraging performance from the 21-year-old, with the first-team coaching staff in attendance.
Ekwah was deployed in front of his side’s back four and regularly made himself available to receive possession when Sunderland were under pressure and trying to play out from the back.
On several occasions the 21-year-old, who is an imposing figure at 6 ft 2, helped relieve that pressure by collecting the ball and helping his side transition from defence into an attacking position.
At times Ekwah appeared to want a little too much time on the ball as he sometimes twisted into trouble when Stoke players looked to dispossess him.
Still, the midfielder was often on hand when Stoke looked to build an attack in the final third, making multiple tackles in front of his side’s four-man defence.
That off-the-ball work will be important if Ekwah is to receive more opportunities in the first team, and of course the Championship will provide much greater challenges.
The former France Under-20 international also played further forward at West Ham, scoring five goals in 11 league appearances for the club’s under-21s team in the first half of the campaign.
Yet, while predominantly playing for the youth side, Ekwah is someone who regularly trained with West Ham’s first team and has featured in The Hammers’ matchday squad.
At 21, he is at a stage in his career where he’ll feel he’s ready to make an impact at senior level, while he appears to have the attributes to do so.
It’s now a question of whether Mowbray feels he’s ready to start a Championship fixture. With Sunderland lacking options in the midfield engine room, his chance is likely to come soon.