BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Sunderland are sweating on the fitness of Aiden McGeady for Sunday’s League One play-off final against Sunderland – with the Irishman missing their last four matches.
The 33-year-old attacking midfielder has scored 14 goals and got six assists this season but had been playing with a broken bone in his foot since the beginning of April.
McGeady had been having injections in his foot as the Black Cats assessed his fitness on a game-by-game basis. His last action was against Portsmouth on April 27.
Otherwise Black Cats boss Jack Ross has a fully-fit squad to choose from with Duncan Watmore back from an ankle ligament injury.
Reece James (groin) is training fully but is not expected to feature in this weekend’s match.
There has been a huge turnover of players since Sunderland were relegated from the Championship last season.
Manager Jack Ross and his coaching staff had to make up the numbers on the first day of pre-season as they were unsure which players would report back – the Black Cats effectively sacking Papy Djilobodji and Didier Ndong for not turning up.
Wahbi Khazri was sold to St Etienne for £6.3million and Paddy McNair joined Middlesbrough in a £5.1m switch. Lamine Kone was loaned to Strasbourg
James Hunter – Sunderland writer for the Chronicle, Journal and Sunday Sun since 1999 – said: “The expectation of the fans was that the club would win promotion – and many of them would have said they would win the league outright.
“But I don’t think by any means it was a given. I expected them to be in the running for promotion and at least to be in the play-offs. And they were right in the running for automatic going into the final weekend.
“This has been a decent season, given the size of the rebuilding job. It was a massive job to do.
“There were new owners last summer and a new manager. There were a lot of highly-paid players from their Premier League years who had to be moved on, the squad rebuilt from the ground up.
“There were about 12-14 players who went out and about the same number coming in.
“By League One standards they had a colossal wagebill, going into it. The players brought in were on a realistic League One salary.”
Charlton lost one of their star men in the January window – selling Karlan Grant to Huddersfield Town – and Sunderland also saw a big-hitter move at the start of 2019. Josh Maja was bought by Bordeaux for £1.5m.
“He [Maja] had scored 15 goals up to the end of January,” said Hunter. “If you assume he had carried on at a similar rate then he would have 20 or 25 goals now.
“But I think they didn’t really have much choice [in terms of selling], he was in the final year of his contract and made it fairly clear, through his agent, that he wouldn’t be signing a new one. It was a case of either selling him in January or letting him walk away for minimal compensation.”
Maja had been one of Sunderland’s star men before his exit. Other key performers? McGeady has already been touched on above but Lee Cattermole, one of the highest earners, has done excellently in midfield.
Scottish goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin, a calming presence in both play-off semi-final legs, has also had a strong campaign and kept 16 clean sheets in all competitions.
Hunter believes Ross can be proud of the job he has done, no matter the outcome this weekend.
“He had to take over a club that was heading in a downward spiral, it was about stopping the rot and building it up again.
“From the outside people will look and say he has only been successful if the club get promoted – everything else is a failure, and Ross has said he would regard it as failure if Sunderland don’t go up.
“But even if the worst happens and they don’t win promotion, an awful lot has been achieved in the last 12 months. You can’t just look at those 12 months as a write off.
“Sunderland were in such a mess a year ago that it had to be put right and fixed.
“So I think it has been a success, regardless of what happens on Sunday.”