What major injury blow means for Sunderland and the options Phil Parkinson now has
In the early stages of the January window, Phil Parkinson had a big decision to make.
Bristol City were suffering due to some key injuries in central defence, and it meant that a deal for Bailey Wright was delayed with no guarantee of going through.
Parkinson had to decide whether to move onto other targets or hope for a breakthrough later in the month.
He opted for the latter and once the Australian broke into the Sunderland side, it was easy to see why.
Assistant boss Steve Parkin had spoken before the window that the backroom staff would like to add some Championship experience to the group.
Sunderland have a relatively young starting line-up and the logic was also that players used to playing in the division above would be able to handle the pressures of going promotion at a big club.
In five appearances, Wright demonstrated that in abundance.
He had been one of many to struggle in a difficult second half at Portsmouth, but the Black Cats kept clean sheets in every one of his other starts.
At the heart of the back three he brought experience and leadership.
To lose him for eight to twelve months, casting doubt on whether he will play again this season, is a significant blow for Parkinson.
Some crunch games loom on the horizon and Wright was quickly establishing himself as one of the first names on the teamsheet.
Parkinson had expected this news from the moment Wright had limped off the pitch at the Kassam Stadium, and though clearly concerned and disappointed, he was sanguine after the game.
In Alim Ozturk, he has a deputy who has proved himself on multiple occasions since arriving on Wearside.
Parkinson admitted when Wright came into the side at Tranmere that it had been a ‘very, very tough call’ to drop Ozturk, who had emerged as a key part of the side that turned around a flatlining season after Christmas.
Ozturk had been out of the picture in the initial weeks after Parkinson took charge but the Sunderland boss quickly began to speak glowingly behind the scenes about the Turk’s attitude and professionalism.
Amidst something of an injury crisis, Ozturk played through the pain in an FA Cup game at Gillingham and Parkinson quickly realised he had a player he could depend on.
The centre-half has a habit of fighting his way back.
After a difficult start to his career last season, when he himself admitted he was well short of fitness and form, Ozturk took the rare outings in the Checkatrade Trophy to rebuild his confidence.
It was not until April that he was given another chance, impressing in an emphatic home win over Doncaster Rovers.
His form in the latter stages of the campaign meant that many thought it harsh when he came out of the side at the start of this season, reclaiming his place weeks later and helping to steady what had been a difficult start.
Parkinson, of course, has a few options as he ponders reshuffling his defence, and that cover could be key in the weeks ahead.
Joel Lynch was expected to return to training this week as he recovers from a rib problem, and though generally he has operated on the left of defence, where Tom Flanagan is currently excelling, his experience means he would be capable of operating in the central role.
Conor McLaughlin is also a player who has won praise from his manager of late, and has plenty of experience of playing on the right of a back three.
Having kept seven clean sheets in eight, however, Parkinson is unlikely to want to tinker with the structure that has been working so well of late and was clear last Saturday that he would back Ozturk if the time came.
“When we made the change at Tranmere it was a tough call, if Bailey is out for a period then Alim comes in and I have no problems with that at all,” he said.
“Alim has a great personality, he is a good lad, even though he has been out of the team, he has trained well.
“We went with the same team for a period of time and sometimes it can be difficult to keep those lads going not in the team but as I keep saying in the press, they have been outstanding and have helped drive the lads in the team on.”
Ozturk can consider himself unfortunate to have had to watch from the sidelines of late, and will feel with some justification that it was not the first time he has been harshly dropped.
This is the latest chance to prove himself all over again, and make his biggest and most important contribution yet.
For Wright, it’s a bitter blow as he bids to restate his obvious quality ahead of his Bristol City contract expiring in the summer.
The injury will also come as a significant disappointment with Australia’s first appearance in the Copa America on the horizon in June.
For club, country and player, the hope will be that the excellent showing at the Kassam Stadium will not be his final Sunderland appearance.
From what we’ve seen so far, Sunderland are also likely to be very interested in monitoring the next step Wright takes after this season.