The two interesting Lee Johnson answers that summed up Aiden McGeady's Sunderland revival and importance

It was one of the first calls Lee Johnson made after it became clear that he would be the new Head Coach of Sunderland and given what has happened since, it could prove to be one of his most important.

Tuesday, 30th March 2021, 6:00 am

The first Sunderland player Johnson spoke to was Aiden McGeady

Johnson wanted to make clear not just that his exile from the senior group was over, but that he would be a central part of his plans moving forward.

McGeady was set to be on the bench against Wigan Athletic the following day but was swiftly bumped up into the starting XI.

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Aiden McGeady has been an integral figure in Sunderland's superb recent form
Aiden McGeady has been an integral figure in Sunderland's superb recent form

Though the winger understandably needed time to get up to full speed, Johnson without fail kept him in the side (in the league at least) to ensure he could find a rhythm after so long on the sidelines.

The medium-term results have been spectacular.

McGeady has four goals in all competitions and most importantly, 12 assists in the league.

No one has produced more, a quite remarkable record when you consider that first appearance came on December 5th.

Speculation raged during McGeady's long absence from the side under Phil Parkinson and the unfounded rumours were clearly as much a source for angst to the winger as the exile itself.

"After the year I've had, it's been difficult," he recently said.

"I've had all sorts of things said about me and labelled against me, and I think the proof is in the pudding. I'm glad to be back playing and I think the players are happy to have me back.

"I've got to give the manager a lot of credit as well because straight away he's come in and said 'you're going to be a big player for me.' He's said that from day one and I have to give him a lot of thanks as well. Ultimately it's not about me, the end goal is about the team getting up. It's as simple as that.”

The truth of both his exile and his return is more straightforward than many imagined at the time and there was an interesting tale from Lee Johnson's pre-match press conference last week that underlined it.

McGeady would of course go on to be a key architect in the vital 1-0 win over Bristol Rovers, and beforehand Johnson had been asked about the month ahead and just how important it would be to the club.

"It's a big month, we know that," he said.

"There's a lot of opportunity in that month and we've got a lot of potential. Potential doesn't get you over the line and it's like I said ahead of the final, you've got to bring out your best when it matters most.

"The boys have got a winning mentality and I can feel that at the moment.

"Even today, Geads is kicking off because he's lost a five-a-side game, and I like that. It's just the natural born winner in him.

"I think he had to take a five-minute cooler because he was so frustrated with his team.

"That's good, because it was seniors versus the young lads and the young lads beat them! I like that because they've shown the senior boys that they're up for it.

"We want a strong competitive edge because in the end, everyone respects their team-mates because they're fighting hard to win, whether it's just a small-sided game or 11-v-11.

"We've got to continue that and make no apology for having those standards."

There, in many ways, you have it.

What Parkinson deemed an issue (the former manager always said it was never about a specific incident or issue, but general 'culture'), Johnson sees a major asset.

In that regard, Johnson is aligned with Jack Ross.

Ross welcomed the challenge of managing a player willing to ask questions, raise concerns and challenge, and was always quick to point out that the winger had twice shown superb application to rapidly come back into the fold when unable to take part in pre-season due to injury.

Clearly, in terms of footballing philosophy there is also a neater fit between McGeady and Johnson than there was with the new Head Coach's predeccesor and that has without a doubt helped smooth his reintegration.

McGeady has bought into the demands Johnson places on his forward players to press and drop into shape out of possession, recognising the increased opportunity he is getting to affect the game in the final third.

In Friday's press conference there was another sign of the impact McGeady has in recent weeks.

The day before Stephen Kenny's Republic of Ireland fell to defeat against Luxembourg, Johnson was asked by an Irish journalist whether the winger had been disappointed not to be recalled.

"First and foremost, he's been absolutely fantastic since he came back," Johnson responded.

"I really like him, I understand him which I think is important.

"He is challenging because he's a winner, simple as that. He's had a top career, won trophies, 90-odd caps and had big moves.

"He's playing at a level really that if he was 27,28, he wouldn't be in this division.

"When it comes to Ireland, I was a bit worried about it I'm honest!

"I don't think he was, I just think he's focused on the job at hand. He's loved his time as an Ireland player but at the moment the focus is on Sunderland.

"I don't think he's thought too much about it, but we have talked about it just because of my fear of losing him."

Jack Ross noted when he arrived that McGeady had been clear in his desire to help put Sunderland back where it belonged after relegation from the Championship.

It has been a long and winding road from there but with ten games to go, McGeady now has every chance to be a key figure in doing exactly that.

It is one of Johnson's most significant feats thus far.

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