Sunderland defender reacts to Tottenham Hotspur transfer rumours

At just 20 years of age Sunderland defender Dennis Cirkin has already experienced a lot in his footballing career.

After winning promotion at Wembley in his first year with the Black Cats, which included a managerial change and some low moments, the marauding full-back has a smile on his face when admitting: “After last season I thought what else can I learn here.”

Yet Cirkin has had time to reflect while he’s been sidelined with a hamstring injury, which caused him to miss five consecutive Championship fixtures, including the squad’s trip to London when Sunderland faced Reading and Watford last month.

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The defender’s return to the starting XI could have hardly gone better as he registered an assist and the winning goal, his first in senior football, in the Black Cats’ 2-1 win over Wigan at the Stadium of Light.

Dennis Cirkin after scoring for Sunderland against Wigan Athletic.

Scoring in front of 37,000 fans is a moment Cirkin won’t forget, but didn't come without setbacks along the way.

Staying mentally strong

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"I’ve had a lot of banter from the lads and the coaches especially about getting this first goal but it means a lot to me,” recalls Cirkin.

“Being out of the squad is difficult because sometimes you are left out of meetings because you have to do rehab while you’re in on certain days that the others aren't.

Dennis Cirkin after scoring for Sunderland against Wigan Athletic. Picture by FRANK REID

“They had Watford and Reading and I was in for that whole week where it was just me and a few others.

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“I didn’t travel with the squad and it was tough because one of the goals I set myself at the start of the season was to aim to play every game, every minute.

“I think it’s a very high target but I think it’s possible and it was frustrating. I think you just have to keep mentally strong and that’s the biggest thing in football.”

Staying mentally strong also goes beyond Cirkin’s football career, as the defender had to deal with losing his father while coming through the ranks at Tottenham.

Cirkin picked up a hamstring injury during Sunderland's defeat at Middlesbrough. Picture by FRANK REID
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”I prefer not to go into detail but I went through a very tough two months of grieving, and it was tough. But I think that shaped me and made me think about a lot in terms of life and where I want to be and where my dad would have wanted me to be.

“I think every day I just keep remembering our memories and what he said to me. He always wanted me to score and I dedicated the goal to him.”

Competition at Sunderland

That goal against Wigan, a brave header at the back post, came after head coach Tony Mowbray elected to recall Cirkin and play the defender alongside team-mate Aji Alese.

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Alese has been one of the Black Cats’ standout players in recent weeks after replacing Cirkin in the team, and the pair should provide healthy competition on Wearside.

“I think that’s been a new experience for me this season,” admits Cirkin. “Somebody coming into my place and playing exceptionally well. He’s been brilliant.

“Obviously I use that as motivation and you can see today we can play with a left-sided centre-back and left wing-back. We can both do similar jobs and it works well.

“It’s good that there’s competition and we have a good squad.”

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Lengthy chats with Tony Mowbray

Mowbray’s arrival has looked like a good fit for a youthful group at Sunderland, while the former Middlesbrough captain has gained a reputation for developing younger players.

Cirkin has already had lengthy chants with Mowbray about both his football career and life away from the game, conversations the player has found hugely beneficial.

“I think he’s brilliant with the players,” replies Cirkin when asked about Mowbray’s influence. “Even with me I think I had a 45-minute, hour chat with him. We were just speaking about life and everything.

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“I think he’s great and even on the touchline there he’s just always talking to me and always helping out.

“He’s a great guy and I really appreciate how he’s come in and how everyone has settled in well. It’s been brilliant so far.”

You only have to watch Mowbray’s press conferences to see he represents a different personality compared to former Sunderland boss Alex Neil, who ultimately led the club to promotion from League One.

Yet learning from different coaches has also been valuable for Cirkin in the early stages of his career.

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“I think with every coach it’s different,” says the defender. “With this gaffer I had a lengthy chat with him and it was all honesty and I don’t think I’ve had that with another coach before.

“With Alex Neil it was different because maybe I wouldn’t have a one-hour chat with him but on the pitch he would help me and push me.

“It’s different relationships with each manager.”

More to come

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Cirkin’s performances have led to reports that Tottenham are interested in re-signing the defender, while Brentford have also been credited with interest.

But after working hard getting back in Sunderland’s first team, the 20-year-old’s focus remains on the Black Cats’ Championship campaign.

“I haven’t heard about any of these rumours, I’ve tried to stay away from it,” he says.

“I just try and play for Sunderland and I’m just trying to get back in the team here and that’s my main goal.

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“We’ve got a brilliant squad and I think we can really push in this league.”

With more performances like the one he produced against Wigan, Cirkin should help Sunderland do just that.