Tough tackling, down to earth and tight to his famous family: The inside track on Sunderland new signing Dion Sanderson
As Bob Bennett handed out the trophies at Wednesfield Town’s end of season awards, one player in particular caught his eye.
The Wolves talent-spotter prided himself on knowing all the up-and-coming players in the region, but here he was handing out award after award to a youngster whose name had slipped under the radar.
It was the first time Bennett laid eyes on a young Dion Sanderson - and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
“My mind never switched off, and it was obvious looking at the group - I had to go and watch this Dion,” recalls Bennett, speaking to The Echo.
"I knew the rest of the team but I hadn’t seen him and hadn’t heard anything about him, so made sure I went to see him.
"That proved to be a good day, not just for me - but for Wolves and Dion.”
Not that scout nor player knew it at the time, but that would prove to be the day that kick-started Sanderson’s career. Within ten days of training with Wolves, the defender handed a two-season contract at the club’s academy and his footballing journey has continued at Molineux from that point.
It’s a journey which has now seen the 20-year-old agree a season-long loan move to Sunderland and, as the defender prepares to form part of the Black Cats’ squad for the first time, we spoke to two of the key influences on the youngster’s blossoming football career to get the inside track on Sunderland’s latest addition:
One of the first managers to take notice of Sanderson’s talent was Dean Gill – the former manager of Wednesfield Town, the junior side who Sanderson represented between the ages of seven and nine.
Sanderson was far from the only promising player in an area which produced a host of talented players.
"It’s a good footballing area that makes good footballers and he was brought up playing the right way,” says Gill.
“But he’s a tough boy and he won’t take nonsense off anyone. Playing for a big club won’t phase him, and he won’t take any s*** in the dressing room either.”
While now a tough-tackling defender, it wasn’t until his arrival at Molineux that Sanderson was entrusted with that role.
“Because of his size and stature, he went into a defensive role,” explains Bennett.
“He was in a central role, because it was just mini soccer, and he could have stepped into any position.
"I didn’t think he’d ever grow that tall but he’s a strapping young lad - and he’s kept that athleticism.
"His stature, his presence, his character - off the ball, his work in that area, he just attracted me.”
That height Bennett references is one key attribute of Sanderson’s while his willingness to do the dirty side of the game is something the man himself alluded to during his first interview after joining the Black Cats.
But Gill insists there is far more to his game than that.
“There’s a lot more to him than a tackle,” he adds.
"He gets stuck in, but he can play and he’s a winner. He wouldn’t be around Nuno’s squad if he couldn’t play as well.”
It’s clear when talking to those involved in Sanderson’s career that not only is he a good player, but he’s a good person too.
Integral to that are his family, with whom the 20-year-old remains extremely close.
Of course, a conversation about Sanderson’s family cannot take place without reference to his famous aunt – Olympic gold medalist Tessa Sanderson – who was an early athletic influence.
But that family influence transcends beyond sport and, in the eyes of Gill, makes Sanderson a little bit different to many modern day footballers.
"There’s a couple of things I think are a bit unique about Dion,” says his former manager.
“One, he’s a good family man. He comes from a good family.
"And secondly, he still comes and watches my games now. I manage Bilston Town, a step six side, and the team Dion was in we kept through to open age and then moved clubs. Some of Dion’s friends still play for me, and every time he’s not playing for Wolves he still comes and supports his mates.
“To come and still support your mates and your ex-manager when he doesn’t need to, let’s be straight, and there’s a lot of kids who will already have forgotten where they came from, shows a loyalty to the game and a loyalty that will carry on in the game. It’s a personal strength of his.”
So too has Sanderson not forgotten the influence Bennett has had on his career.
"He’s a very polite young man,” adds the former scout.
"Whenever he saw me around the training ground he’d always come over to speak to me. He remembers, even to this day - he even replied to a message from me the other day.
“It’s a lot about character. You’re looking at players a lot, and you’re weighing them up as a person.
“He’s down to earth, and he’s never really changed in my eyes - even to the point where he answers my grandson’s messages because they’ve been following him. He even answers them and they just love him to bits.”
And if the insight of Bennett and Gill is anything to go by, so too may Sunderland fans love the defender by the time his season-long loan comes to an end.