The contract resolution that shows just how much Sunderland's footballing structure has improved

When the dust settled on his red card, part of the frustration for Elliot Embleton will have been in knowing that he has given up an opportunity.

Tuesday, 19th October 2021, 4:20 pm

Embleton returned from Blackpool this summer with his reputation enhanced once again, and behind the scenes at Sunderland the feeling was that his stature had grown with it.

The at times fraught, ultimately successful but undeniably lengthy summer recruitment process left an opening for Embleton and like Dan Neil behind him, he took it and never looked back.

By the time the start of the campaign rolled around his place in the side was barely even a matter of debate anymore and those early-season performances just underlined that.

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Elliot Embleton celebrates his first goal for Sunderland at the Stadium of Light earlier this season

Now he'll be forced to watch on from the sidelines for a brief period, in all likelihood handing Alex Pritchard a chance to impress.

You don't need to spend long in Lee Johnson' s company to get a sense of how highly he rates the attacking midfielder, and just what a coup he feels it it was to sign him as a third-tier club this summer.

Having had to watch in pre-season due to a positive COVID-19 test, Pritchard will not need telling what a chance he has to step up over the next week amid a raft of minor injuries in forward areas.

Even so, the positive of Embleton's development over the last few months is that this really will be a minor blip and nothing more.

For one, he has done more than enough to prove that number ten role is one he can execute to a high level and it's one we will see him in more regularly than not.

Two-footed, with a wicked set piece and the bravery to play high-risk passes in the final third, he's one of the players who best encapsulates the forward step Sunderland have taken this season.

They are seeing less of the ball but doing more with it; open but with a regular attacking threat.

Combined with the return of 30,000 supporters, it's a major factor in the reason why their home form in particular has been so good so far this season.

Part of Embleton's importance also comes from his flexibility.

There will be, as there already have been, times when he and Pritchard both play together to increase Sunderland's quality and composure in possession.

The 22-year-old can play out wide as he did regularly through his youth career, and especially at the Stadium of Light he could easily drop a touch deeper to give the midfield pivot a more attacking look when needed.

It's a fairly unique skill set he possesses, particularly at this level, and it makes it all the more heartening that Sunderland last week secured his long-term future with a significant contract extension.

Even more heartening than that; they did so with no fuss, no drama, and in an extremely timely fashion.

Embleton's rightful rise as a key player in this squad is perhaps the best example of the positive change proper footballing leadership, on a day-to-day basis has brought to the club.

Not because the relationship between all parties has been excellent from day one, because it clearly hasn't.

Johnson has been candid in admitting that his decision to bump Aiden McGeady into the starting line-up for his opening game, which came at Embleton's expense, set the pair away on a rocky footing.

By now Embleton was at risk of becoming a player lost in the gap between U23s and senior football, a pattern which had been far too regular on Wearside.

Injuries had of course played a part in that, but his future looked unclear when he left for Blackpool.

Here, though, was the first step forward.

In communicating that decision Sunderland were open, Kristjaan Speakman quoted on the record as to why he had made the call. Significantly, he also publicly made clear that

Embleton's contract had been extended for a further year, and that the Black Cats still believed in his long-term future.

If speculation around a possible move continued throughout the summer, then that was a reflection less of both parties' desire to make his time here a success, and more a reflection of just how well he had done in that promotion-winning side.

Blackpool wanted to sign him, and from Embleton's perspective it would have made no sense to rule it out when his place in the Sunderland side was still uncertain.

From Sunderland's perspective, there could be no guarantees of playing time at that stage, only of the opportunity to earn it.

He got that, and he delivered.

Speakman told The Echo in early August that he would look to secure Embleton's long-term future and just two months down the line he has done exactly that.

In part it is testament to Embleton's desire to play for his boyhood club, with Johnson praising his conduct through negotiations which passed almost entirely without a hitch.

It's also testament to the way he handled that Blackpool loan, sensing opportunity rather than a snub.

And in part it is credit to Sunderland for being pro-active, and for having a vision that convinced a player who could clearly earn a Championship move that his long-term development is best served on Wearside.

Above all else, for finally having the real trust in academy talent to make the step up.

All of this stems from stability and a long-term plan, one that stops cans being kicked down the road until it’s already too late.

It has made for quite the contrast to some of the public contract sagas which came to dominate and in some cases actively undermine on-field progress.

To many neutrals Embleton's fringe status over the last year or two was baffling, a sign of the lack of long-term thinking and football leadership at a drifting club.

That this renewal was handled without any public drama is an indication of how much has changed, and how quickly.

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