The key factors that will determine the long-term future of Dion Sanderson as he continues to thrive at Sunderland

Sunderland had a two-goal advantage but there was time left in the game and as Stephen Humphrys raced into the channel, Lee Johnson's side were vulnerable.

Tuesday, 9th March 2021, 12:45 pm

The right-back had been caught too high up the pitch and the counter was on.

Then, in a flash, it wasn't. Dion Sanderson stepped in, a turn of pace and the cleanest of challenges.

It was a moment that summed up both his growing confidence and clear quality. Sanderson is now entering a category of player that is hard to define until you see it. Like John Mensah or Jonny Evans before him, he is a loanee who just seems a step above the level.

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Dion Sanderson is in outstanding form for Sunderland
Dion Sanderson is in outstanding form for Sunderland

Four consecutive man of the match awards tell you just how quickly supporters have taken to this 21-year-old.

His ability on the pitch is a big part of that, but equally key is his grounded nature off it. Sanderson has an endearing modesty and it came to the fore as he reflected on scoring his first ever senior goal against Rochdale.

The emotions had been 'overwhelming', he said. So much so, he entirely forgot about a celebration that he had planned specifically for the moment.

Like everything else, he did just fine in the end. Two clenched fists, a roar, and the adulation of his team-mates.

Sanderson's humility also leaves you in little doubt that he will take the growing speculation over his long-term future in his stride.

As his form has soared, so too has the list of clubs said to be eyeing up a summer move.

On this point Sanderson simply said that it wasn't something he was thinking about right now. His focus? Just keep enjoying his football.

Sunderland's efforts to rebuild their recruitment department are ongoing but Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman has already begun his planning for the summer window and there is little doubt that Sanderson will feature in his thoughts.

The reality nevertheless remains that for both player and club, there is nothing to be gained by looking too far ahead.

For Sunderland, any discussion is moot unless they go on to secure promotion.

They pulled off something of a coup in getting Sanderson to this level for the current campaign but you can be sure that it won't happen again. Whatever comes next, Sanderson will be at the very least a Championship player next season.

Sanderson himself will know that only by maintaining his current form will the level of interest in him persist.

Still, the quality of Sanderson's performances means it is impossible not to hypothesise as to what the future might hold.

The crucial factor will ultimately be what Wolves decide to do this summer.

Sanderson has said in the past that his long-term ambition is to represent his hometown club in the Premier League. Nothing about his performances in recent weeks have suggested that is a fanciful aim and you suspect he will be keen to keep it alive for as long as possible. Time, and talent, remain firmly on his side.

Put yourself in Wolves' shoes and it is hard to see why a summer sale would make sense.

A full season at Championship level would surely allow them to make a more informed decision on his long-term prospects and capabilities. Similarly, if they were to decide on an eventual sale, then it is hard to argue that at this stage they have come anywhere close to maximising his full value.

A season on loan in the Championship would potentially allow them to do exactly that.

The only complication as it stands is that from this summer Sanderson will have only one year left on his current deal.

It leaves him in a strong position if there is significant interest this summer and Wolves feel as if they are vulnerable to losing him somewhere down the line in a cut-price deal. This is no doubt one of the reasons why there are so many clubs beginning to monitor the situation.

The strength of Sanderson's relationship with his parent club, though, leaves you to think that this is unlikely to be a hurdle either party finds particularly difficult to clear.

The bonus for Sunderland is that the relationship Lee Johnson has with both player and club is very strong.

Strange as it seems now, there was a time when a January recall looked likely.

Sunderland had gone into deadline day looking for a left-sided centre-half but when Sanderson became available, they took the view that it was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

It made his subsequent lack of minutes difficult to fathom but even Johnson struggled initially to find a place for him with more senior options doing little wrong.

The Head Coach was initially left bitterly frustrated by his inability to play in the Papa John's Trophy, regularly denying him the chance to get him minutes and build a rhythm.

An early meeting with Wolves proved key all the same.

Johnson made clear how much he rated Sanderson and insisted that in a packed fixture schedule there would be regular opportunities.

He has been true to his word and most hearteningly for Wolves, he is now thriving in what is clearly his long-term position as a centre-half.

Amid an injury crisis he has stepped up as the leader of the defence, thriving in the pressure of a promotion push at a big club.

Johnson is in regular dialogue with Seyi Olofinjana, who manages all loans at Wolves.

From a difficult start it is now a deal producing rewards for everybody.

Supporters can look ahead to the summer and be assured that if Sanderson is to be available again, promotion would leave Sunderland in a strong position.

For both player and club, there is nothing more urgent than achieving that goal first and foremost.

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