The big Dylan McGeouch conundrum explored and assessed with his Sunderland career in doubt
It’s almost an hour after full time but Dylan McGeouch is still a player visibly bouncing on adrenaline.
Sunderland have seized the initiative in the promotion race. Barnsley lost, and George Honeyman swooped at the front post with just seconds to spare, breaking Rochdale’s stubborn resistance.
It had been a fine afternoon for the Black Cats, with Charlie Wyke underling his improving form by scoring the equaliser earlier in the second half.
His exile had ended just days previous at Accrington Stanley, when Jack Ross shuffled his pack in the aftermath of the Checkatrade Trophy heartbreak.
He was rewarded spectacularly. There had been doubts when the line-ups dropped as to whether McGeouch could cope in a midfield two but he was everywhere, pressing well, winning challenges and moving the ball quickly.
It seemed like a big moment and on the morning of that Rochdale game, Ross challenged him to keep playing that way.
He insisted that was McGeouch at his best, rather than the kind of player who sat a little deeper and rotated possession. He wanted aggression and drive, convinced that the Scot could deliver it.
The 26-year-old felt he was hitting his best form, spoke well about his frustrating campaign and his determination to finish the season on a high.
Just a few days later, he started against Burton Albion but was dispossessed under little pressure as the visitors scored. He didn’t last until half time, a hip problem pushing him back to the sidelines. He recovered, but never regained his place and after missing out on a place in the 18 at Wembley, McGeouch has admitted in the Scottish press that he will have to consider his future.
Few would quibble with that.
For player and club, there is a big decision to make.
McGeouch is entering his peak years and arrived at Sunderland in the best form of his career, a stellar season at Hibernian followed by international recognition. His signing was regarded as coup both north and south of the border.
He cannot have another season with so few starts.
McGeouch pointed out in his comments that he has been available for the majority of the games this season, and indeed a record of 30 appearances is by no means poor.
The issue has not so much been the injuries themselves but their timing. That hip problem picked up against Burton was the perfect example of that.
He was nothing short of exceptional in pre-season, showcasing his quality in the demolition of St Mirren. McGeouch sat deeper and was always available to gather possession, but produced plenty of quality further forward, too.
It was the same a week later at Middlesbrough, a game abandoned at half-time but one in which Sunderland looked every bit capable of competing against a powerful opposition from the tier above. McGeouch was at the heart of that, influential in midfield.
A calf problem brought his momentum to a halt at the worst possible time. By the time he was ready to feature regularly again, Lee Cattermole had been successfully brought back into the fold and Max Power was making an impressive start to his Sunderland career.
That competition for places was compounded in January when Grant Leadbitter was brought back to the club.
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Conventional wisdom at the time was that Leadbitter may struggle to play alongside Cattermole. Ross refuted that, and indeed it was McGeouch who suffered the most from that addition. In his most frustrating part of the season, there were just two appearances between Leadbitter’s arrival and that game at Accrington.
So what next for Sunderland and McGeouch?
Ross is likely to want to work with a smaller squad next year and central midfield is an obvious area for potential departures.
He currently can call upon McGeouch, Cattermole, Power, Leadbitter, George Honeyman and potentially Luke O’Nien.
Then there are three rising academy stars to consider in Elliot Embleton, Ethan Robson and Bali Mumba. The time may be nearing for Mumba to look at a loan move to broaden his experience, but Embleton and Robson will be two players keen for a proper go at senior level on Wearside.
Of those already at the club, other departures would be a surprise.
Cattermole’s future is clearly in question, with Stewart Donald admitting this week that the club’s highest earners could move on to allow further investment into other areas of the squad.
But with McGeouch's contractual status meaning he could leave for nothing this summer, he is an obvious candidate to leave if the club want to streamline and rebalance the squad.
To see his Sunderland career come to a swift end this summer would be a bitter disappointment.
On a number of occasions, he showed the quality and incision that the Black Cats badly need more of in midfield, particularly if they are to be more aggressive and creative next season. If there has been frustration at the often pragmatic style this year, then in McGeouch there is a player who can help the transition.
The biggest question for Ross is firstly whether McGeouch can replicate that role he played against Accrington on a weekly basis.
Partnering him alongside Leadbitter would leave the Black Cats short on height and the Sunderland boss seems to prefer the veteran at the base of midfield.
McGeouch reflects a wider question at Sunderland that they will be grappling with over the coming weeks.
What kind of side do they want to build for next year?
This first campaign on Wearside has been hampered by bad timing and bad luck but there is an overwhelming sense that for a number of reasons, too much of McGeouch’s potential has been left in reserve.
That week when McGeouch helped get Sunderland into their strongest position fo the campaign show how he can at the heart of a side that takes control of this division.
In 207/18, his excellent record of regular starts for Hibernian showed that those niggling injuries are not an inevitability.
That contract raises the stakes but as McGeouch himself has said, there is no reason to give up just yet.