The under the radar Sunderland man who has emerged as one of the stars of pre-season
As with any pre-season, there were always going to be some storylines worth following at Sunderland this summer.
Will AIden O'Brien hit the ground running? Can Will Grigg find his way back onto the goal trail? And could Jack Diamond make his mark on the first-team?
But of the main stars of the Black Cats' pre-season has been a far less heralded name, and one who has gone somewhat under the radar since his arrival on Wearside in January.
That of Josh Scowen.
We only saw fleeting glimpses of the midfielder before the League One season was curtailed, with his first start coming at Bristol Rovers in what proved to be Sunderland’s final game of the campaign.
It was hard, therefore, to make any sort of prediction as to how Scowen would fit into this side and Phil Parkinson’s system prior to pre-season – given the defeat the Memorial Stadium was such a dire display from back to front.
Since the Black Cats returned to action at Gateshead, though, the 27-year-old has allayed any concerns and has quickly established himself as a key man. Indeed, he looks set to start against Hull City in the club’s first competitive game for almost six months.
So how has he done it, and what makes the midfielder an ideal fit for this Sunderland midfield?
There was much amusement when Scowen likened himself to a ‘rat’ upon his arrival at the Academy of Light, but it has quickly become apparent why that is. His tenacity in the midfield offers Sunderland something they have been lacking in recent years; Scowen is quick to close down, intercept play and move the ball on quickly and with purpose.
He pops up in pockets and breaks up opposition attacks – while also having the energy to drive the side forward and launch a quick counter.
Against Harrogate, it was noticeable that when Parkinson called for his side to press higher up the pitch, it was Scowen who responded first as he harried a visiting backline who were being given far too much time to play out from the back.
But his game is about much more than simply breaking up the play. In an insipid first-half, many of Sunderland’s better moments came through Scowen.
It was he who, on more than one occasion, spread the play and enabled a cross into the box from one of the wing-backs. He was at the heart of one of the best moves of the game, too – combining with Charlie Wyke, Luke O’Nien and Chris Maguire to set the latter free down the right.
His vision and awareness is key in a system that aims to stretch the backline and get wide players onto the ball as quickly as possible, and the accuracy of his passing was near-perfect.
The key for Scowen now is sustaining the performance level that has seen him catch the eye in pre-season. Competition in the middle is fierce – but for now, it’s Scowen in pole position to start the League One campaign.