Carl Winchester is the Sunderland hero none of us expected this season

Is Carl Winchester becoming a cult hero at Sunderland? Graeme Atkinson pays tribute

‘No significant weaknesses’. That’s stat site’s current take on Carl Winchester. Some may have laughed at this remark last season. To be fair, on current form we would be mistaken to read this as a purely wry statement.

Since the former Forest Green man made the transition from Grant Leadbitter’s understudy last season, to emergency right back at the start of this one, his performances have been frankly, stellar.

Without wishing to sound trite, is it too early to say the red and white faithful have a new emerging cult hero?

Very possibly, but now is not the time for balanced analysis, especially after another triumphant victory at the weekend. Why not submerge ourselves in the positivity overflowing from the very edges of SR5 and wax lyrical for a bit?

So, Winchester a star man at right back then, eh? Who saw that coming? (Put your hand down, you’re fibbing.)

Being honest, I’d even forgotten he’d played in that role for his former clubs. Thinking on it now, I’m sure I read something to this effect not long after the Northern Irishman signed for the Black Cats during the winter transfer window. Quickly filed away to the back of my mind and marked as ‘an irrelevance’ it remained there, until recently. To be fair, such was the injury crisis at the back last season, it’s almost as if everyone at the club had done the same.

In particular, Connor McLaughlin and Luke O’Nien both had their spells on the treatment table which, looking back now, could have been the impetus to see Winchester deployed as right full-back.

In fact, when Rochdale visited in early 2021, so depleted were numbers at the back that the defence consisted of Ollie Younger (league debut), Dion Sanderson and Luke O’Nien. Presumably, an enforced switch to a back three of sorts to compensate for the rigours of the season and the toll it had already taken on our defenders. Prior to a match, for every unfortunate situation like this, a manager looks at his squad and assesses the various permutations as to how best to shuffle the pack. Quite remarkable though, in hindsight, that Winchester started that day in midfield with Dan Neil on the bench.

Of course the passage of time changes many things in football. Even if the 28 year old found himself at right back pre season simply to make up for (what was at the time) the lack of any other recognised senior fullback in the squad. The move now seems a prefect fit which is of greater importance. A happy accident? Possibly, but a welcome one.

Yes, 526 minutes played in the league this season and Carl Winchester is loving life just as much as Sunderland is loving Carl Winchester. Responding to shouts from the crowd to ‘shoooot’ with gusto his long-range efforts are causing opposition teams some genuine anxiety. He seems strangely more mobile now too, getting up and down the pitch with aplomb, providing width and attacking intent when necessary and defending resolutely.

So then, is it simply that playing for the Black Cats in League One is more forgiving and a ‘specialist’ fullback isn’t considered essential? Or is it that Winchester is a versatile talent able to turn his hand to defending helped on by his ability on the ball? Personally, I think there’s an element of both of these things at play here.

Remember I said it wasn’t time for balanced analysis? Well, here’s a little stat to throw at you anyway. Perhaps as a result of being comfortable on the ball, Winchester’s passing accuracy isn’t too shabby either sitting at an average, after six games, of 82.4%. For context, right back Lewie Coyle, notched up an average of 73.9% accuracy last season for Hull City as they were promoted as champions on 89 points.

In summary, 24 appearances later we are now beginning to see the reason Lee Johnson wanted to be reunited with his former player on Wearside. Indeed, should he maintain his current form Carl Winchester is surely a cult hero in the making. Can we say we’ve had many of those since dropping into the third tier?

Either way, in the words of someone just along the corridor at Wise Men Say HQ, frankly we’re ‘lucky to have him’.

Graeme Atkinson