Revealed! The inside story of how Sunderland beat Championship competition to sign striker

It's beginning to look like quite the find.

Thursday, 30th September 2021, 2:09 pm
Ross Stewart celebrates another Sunderland goal

In January Sunderland's recruitment department was threadbare, Kyril-Louis Dreyfus and his behind-the-scenes overhaul still waiting very much in the wings.

And yet at a time where the pandemic was still rife and transfer fees across the divisions were limited, Sunderland commited a six-figure fee for a new striker.

One who had been playing in a side battling relegation from the Scottish Premiership, and often out on the left wing at that. Understandably, neither player nor team were particularly prolific.

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A hamstring injury meant initial progress was slow, but a 3-1 win away at Plymouth Argyle in May set a new standard.

To supporters watching on streams and even to his team-mates sharing the same turf, the athleticism Ross Stewart showed in leading the line was eye-catching.

He's never looked back, a brace against Cheltenham Town taking his early-season tally to seven.

It's his all-round game that has been particularly impressive, and suggests that the rapid rise which has taken him from Kilwinning Rangers to playing in front of 30,000 fans in five years is far from done yet.

It's that support who Stewart has cited as crucial in his decision to turn down Championship moves, but equally key was that Sunderland were in a position to strike.

For that, they owed much to Lee Johnson's expectation that he himself was on the brink of returning to management in the second tier.

It says much that even then, Stewart was deemed a viable option for that tier.

"Ross was first flagged by a very close friend of mine, Brian McDermott," Johnson explained.

"I was very close to taking a Championship job at the time and Brian was someone I wanted to work very closely with.

"We were talking about potential players that we might like to take to that club at the time.

"Brian is a really good football man, a great human being and he has a really good eye. He was at Arsenal for a long time as their lead European scout.

"We had a good watch of him, for another club of course, and so that put him very much on my radar.

"Then of course we go through the Sunderland process, so at that point the discussions start with Kristjaan Speakman as we begin to look deeper into the data and that sort of thing.

"Rossco turned down Championship moves to come here, as well.

"The fact that he initially had a hamstring injury probably helped keep him under the radar a little bit, though to be honest we didn't initially think it was as bad as it actually was.

"The journey he's had really excited me as well, because he's progressed bit by bit. He's been a bit of a late developer and that's something I always like, because that physicality comes with it.

"I think Ross could play until 36/37 to be honest, as long as he steers clear of injuries. He's got that agility.

"So in the end the club made the decision it was the right thing to do [to make that investment].

"It wasn't necessarily a succession plan for Charlie because we absolutely saw them playing together, but of course it was part of the thinking, it had to be."

It's not just in the opposition's final third that Stewart is key, either.

Teams consistently look to put Sunderland under pressure whether it be through free kicks or long throws, and the Scot is an important part of the armoury in defending them.

"Having some height in my team is important as well, because naturally I'm attracted to those Embo, Pritch-type players, low centre of gravity ball-carriers," Johnson explained.

Stewart represented Sunderland's shift in recruitment philosophy, a process that has accelerated since the arrival of Stuart Harvey from Blackburn Rovers.

He has quickly become a key asset with significant resale value, and one who Johnson has previously noted drew yet more Championship interest in the summer.

Not only that, but his intelligence and humility means he fits perfectly into Johnson's desire for tactical flexibility.

It's for that reason that the head coach sees him as a player who could yet go on to play in the Premier League.

He's not without room for improvement, but continues to make rapid strides.

"For me, he's a top-10 Championship player at least, with the potential to go on and play in the Premier League as well," Johnson said.

"I thought the game against Bolton Wanderers, when he faced a really good opponent in Ricardo Santos, was a really interesting one. We felt he needed to be a bit smarter, a bit more economical with his workrate. He came up against a good, quick and strong player and he needed to have a bit more tactical agility.

"We had a really good chat about that game and this is the thing about Rossco: he's such a great lad and is just like a sponge.

"You know that anything you say to him, he's going to take it in. Some of it he'll get rid of, because he's really strong in his own mind, and the bits he feels will improve him he will work really, really hard on.

"He's a very good player to have in your ranks.

"You have to do your due diligence when it comes to a player's character and Ross is an example of that.

"The feel of the group is so important and if you get a bad egg, that can rip through the squad very easily."