What the key players have said about Ross Stewart's Sunderland future and what happens next
The return of Ross Stewart is thankfully nigh.
Though it isn’t yet known for certain whether he’ll be part of the squad that faces Millwall this weekend, his recovery has been progressing well and he’ll be back in a Sunderland shirt soon.
It’s a boost for his team-mates, most certainly for his head coach and also for the supporters who have revelled in his recent rise.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, his imminent return and the fact that the January window draws ever closer has also seen speculation over his short and long-term future intensify. Championship rivals Middlesbrough are the latest club to be credited with a serious interest in his services.
So what’s the current situation, what have all the key players said so far and crucially, what happens next?
Here, we run you through…
KYRIL LOUIS-DREYFUS & KRISTJAAN SPEAKMAN
Chairman Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman were both asked about the situation at a recent Q&A with the Red & White Army fan group.
They said they could offer no guarantees in an unpredictable sport that Stewart would stay, but stressed that they remained committed to keeping the Scot. Speakman did say that talks had been going on for much of this year to some degree, which does perhaps underline that there is clearly a not insignificant gap between the two parties yet to be bridged.
Louis-Dreyfus said the club were planning for all possibilities: “We are having ongoing conversations and we're all hopeful that it will lead to a successful outcome.
“Football is unpredictable, you don't know what will happen between him coming back and January, which clubs might be interested in him etc.
“All we can do is A) do our very best to retain Ross and B) plan for all eventualities so that we're not in a situation where we are panicking and don't know what we're doing. Plan A is to keep Ross and secure a longer contract, but we will be prepared for all possibilities.”
Speakman stressed that the dialogue remained constructive: “These types of discussions often get portrayed as very polarising, it's either that the club won't pay the money or that the player doesn't love the club etc. Neither of those things are true. It's a negotiation, it's a process. The player isn't out of contract in the summer so this isn't the last window [where we could recoup a fee] so there is time. Ross is, I know, 100% motivated and committed to Sunderland, an incredible guy who is incredibly highly thought of because of who he is off the pitch.
“Everyone on this stage wants Ross to be here for longer [than his current contract] but it's got to be right for him as well and we respect that.”
Mowbray at a recent press conference made clear that he wants Stewart to stay, though he is comfortable working within a model where players are sold and the funds subsequently reinvested.
He hinted that a new deal would have to happen within the club’s wage structure.
He said: “Whether we can get to a number that makes Ross feel warm in his stomach that we really want him and want him to stay, if we can get there fantastic and sign a new deal.“If we can’t get there because it breaks all the structures and is going to cause carnage behind the scenes with six other players who think ‘hang on a minute why is he earning that much and I’m earning this’ the club has to make those decisions, and sometimes it’s a really hard decision. If you have to sell an asset, you have to sell an asset.
“That’s why I believe you have to have honesty really because the fans deserve honesty. The fans just want the best players but sometimes you can’t have the best players because otherwise three years down the line your club is in financial difficulty.
"That’s how I see it but I hope we can get something sorted out. I believe he’s got an amazing vehicle to progress his football career, a team that creates chances, lots of technical players that can put the ball in the box in the right areas.”
“If he scores 20 goals, 25 goals the phone is going to ring off the hook, and all he has to do is knock on the manager’s door or Sporting Director’s door and say: “I know so and so has been asking about me, I’d like to go.’ and we’ll go: ‘right as long as it’s £ 30million we can do it.’ They’ll phone up and say ‘we’ll give you £28million and if we win the league we’ll give you another five’ and we go; ‘deal done, let’s get on with it.’
Sunderland are willing to reflect Stewart’s status as one of the club’s very best players (if not the best), but at this stage in their journey that is clearly not top-level in terms of this division and Mowbray's comments probably reflect that.
Stewart himself is hoping first and foremost to pick up where he left off before suffering that thigh injury at Middlesbrough.
In a recent interview with The Echo, he said: “For me it’s just about getting back to full fitness, getting back to playing.
“All that stuff in the background, down the line that will get dealt with one way or another and for me it’s just about focusing on doing well for this club, for my team-mates, and hopefully getting us kicking on up the table.
“It’s 100% about focusing on Sunderland and getting back to making an impact.
“Football is a business and that takes care of itself - it’s [outside noise] not going to deviate my focus which is to get back on the pitch and then to contribute to the team doing well.”
Stewart is ambitious, and wants to test himself more on the international stage and potentially one day in the Premier League. His first choice would be to do that at Sunderland, a club he has a genuine affection for. As the quotes from the club hierarchy outline, the question is whether the valuation and timelines fit for both to progress together.
Ultimately, though, he understands that all the talk is irrelevant if he isn’t fit and maintaining the level of form he has produced over the last eighteen months. That has to be his first priority, for himself and for his club.
SO WHAT NEXT?
The club hierarchy have been unapologetic in saying that players will be sold when the time is right. Elsewhere in the RAWA Q&A referenced, Louis-Dreyfus (speaking generally and not about Stewart) said his hope was that the talented players in this squad would eventually go up to the Premier League with Sunderland, but admitted that the development of some might be quicker than the club. In that case, their departure could help strengthen the club through reinvestment.
There is generally a clear desire to change the narrative, to present a player moving up the pyramid as potentially beneficial for all parties.
The key issue with Stewart is that at the moment, there is no natural successor. The hierarchy have spoken about how a key part of the way they want to operate is having players in the door before key figures depart. Remember that they did exactly that with Stewart, who arrived as Charlie Wyke entered the last six months of his deal. Sunderland knew then his goalscoring form could attract the kind of offer that was beyond their pay structure at that time. Right now their only other striker is Ellis Simms, and he is on loan without an option to buy. The historical sale of some key academy talents, as well as the late decision of Nathan Broahdead to join Wigan on loan, has left the club vulnerable.
The player himself is, as referenced above, focused on the interim in adding the goals and presence Tony Mowbray needs. He knows doing that will allow the rest to take care of itself - one way or another.
So the message from both parties is one of calm, which is perhaps where this differs from some of the previous contract sagas Sunderland fans remember only too well.
What no one can control is external forces: If someone comes in with a lucrative bid for the club that hands the player a major opportunity at a key stage in his career (remember in all of this that Stewart turns 27 next summer and is still currently on his League One-level contract), then the conversation changes. Only time will tell whether that level of offer - for player and club - will be on the table in January. Before then, and hopefully after, Stewart wants to prove he is every bit as good a Championship player as he looked in the opening weeks of the season.