As new Sunderland manager Alex Neil stood pitchside at Plough Lane, having just seen his side draw 1-1 with relegation strugglers AFC Wimbledon, he gave a typical forthright assessment of the players at his disposal.
“You have a lot of lads in their first year and, at the minute, a lot of them look tired,” said Neil. “Ultimately, we haven’t got a huge of amount of options, so that’s something I need to have a good look at.”
One of the players Neil was referring to was 19-year-old full-back Dennis Cirkin, who had just made a twenty-third appearance in his debut season of professional football.
Since returning from a groin injury, Cirkin had looked a shadow of the player who’d arrived on Wearside with a glowing reputation. The England youth international was increasingly devoid of confidence as the season wore on, and a poor performance in Neil’s second game, a home defeat to MK Dons, appeared to sum up the situation at the club.
Cirkin was clearly in need of a rest, but how could we rest him? After the January transfer window he was our only fit senior left-back. The situation looked bleak.
Reflecting on the window, Kristjaan Speakman had gone on record to stress the club’s duty of care towards the likes of Tom Flanagan and Aiden O’Brien, but failed to take into account his duty of care towards our own drained young players.
Over the years we’ve seen a number of youngsters with big reputations wilt on Wearside. Jerome Sinclair had featured on the bench for Liverpool in Jurgen Klopp’s first game in charge of the Reds, but found his loan terminated after less than six months at Sunderland.
Kazaiah Sterling played for Spurs in the Champions League prior to joining Sunderland. He did little of note here and now finds himself playing in America’s third tier, following a spell at Potters Bar Town last year.
At the time there were fears Cirkin may have gone the same way. But a combination of an improved defensive structure under Neil and the resilience of Cirkin himself saw him become a mainstay in our backline during an incredible 16-game unbeaten run.
Whether he has been deployed at left-back or more centrally, Cirkin has been dependable, good in the air and shown admirable grit and determination to cope with the dark arts of League One.
All of the above is impressive enough for a youngster making his way in the game at a club like Sunderland. Yet when you add in the tragic death of his father, and the small fact of him living a good five hours from home, I would argue Cirkin has been an unsung hero throughout the campaign.
It has not all been plain sailing. But after coping with personal loss, exhaustion, injury, poor spells of form and the demands of playing for the Lads in League One, to see Dennis Cirkin refer to Sunderland as “my club” is a proud moment for everyone. I have every faith he can continue to grow with our club.