The Ross Stewart Saga: How should SAFC approach the ongoing contract dispute?
Written by Luke Dufton on 19th January 2023
With rumours swiftly entering circulation, speculation has certainly increased around Sunderland’s talismanic centre-forward Ross Stewart heading into the infamously chaotic January transfer window.
The 26-year-old Scotsman has attracted vast interest from various clubs across the UK. The vibrant striker spearheaded the Wearside outfit’s Sky Bet League One promotion winning campaign via the playoffs last season, bagging 26 goals in the process, including the crucial winner at Wembley Stadium in a 2-0 victory over Wycombe Wanderers.
Evidently, his impressive statistics enticed numerous clubs from higher tiers, though it was his resilient work ethic and ability to play his unique trade across the pitch that captured the imagination of Sunderland supporters who were in awe of his versatility.
Following pessimistic doubts from fans across the nation that Stewart could not replicate his feat in the Championship, it has certainly been more of the same for the Ayrshire born forward who has notched an impressive nine goals in 12 appearances heading into the halfway point of the season. This has cultivated the optimists within the fanbase who are longing for an unanticipated promotion push.
Even more remarkably, Stewart achieved this despite being sidelined from the exposition of September following an injury in the warm up against Middlesbrough and only returning mid-December, unsurprisingly marking his return with a composed finish from the bench against Hull City.
Ever since, “The Loch Ness Drogba” has scored six in seven, only failing to score against playoff faithfuls Swansea City last time out. Obviously, his prolific goal scoring ability has garnered a myriad of interest, especially from this weekend’s opponents Middlesbrough who would relish adding Stewart to their frontline alongside the Championship’s top goal scorer Chuba Akpom.
There seems to be a justified reluctance emerging from the Black Cats boardroom regarding his sale to the Teesside rivals, with perhaps it being a sidestep to a promotion rival of lesser prestige. From a personal perspective, Stewart should be aspiring to attract the interest of top division mainstays by playing his part in Sunderland’s promotion chase, not jumping ship to a fellow North East side in the hope of a bolstered wage.
Majority shareholder, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, recently enlightened fans in a rare public appearance with supporters’ groups stating, “Plan A is to keep him. We would only consider selling someone if we had confidence, we could replace him with someone better”.
This being reflective of the ongoing contract discussions with Stewart which seem to have entered a stalemate on both fronts, with the forward only having half a year with the club option of a one-year extension left on his contract. It raises the prominent discussion amongst fans surrounding the wider argument of whether the club should become a selling club who submit to the demands of other institutions.
Whilst Stewart has alerted the attention from the likes of Premier League clubs including Brentford and Crystal Palace, alongside his native Scottish giants Rangers – the board have an enormous decision to make over the enigmatic playmaker, with a large contingent of SAFC fans hoping he remains in the red and white portion of the North East.
Though, the aforementioned Brentford are the perfect instance of a successful club that has dramatically rose through the divisions whilst implementing a profiteering transfer policy. The London based outfit have reaped the rewards of selling their finest assets including the likes of Said Bemaraha and acquiring adequate replacements such as England international Ivan Toney.
Similarly, Brighton and Hove Albion are another exemplification of a club that has integrated a profit based fiscal policy to catalyse their drive from the depths of the Football League. With Sunderland’s recruitment and footballing staff, stewarded by Kristjan Speakman and Stuart Harvey, attempting to emulate similar achievements, it will be a litmus test for the board who are working in a niche environment where ambition is high and an esteemed history is on the line.
With fans beginning to query the extent and efficiency of this policy, it raises the argument of whether it will work at a perceived big club? I believe it can, and it will. It cannot be forgotten that Stewart was the well in advance replacement for Charlie Wyke who indeed departed to Wigan Athletic following his prolific scoring 2020/21 season and failure to sign a new deal.
I do not think there is much doubt amongst the majority that a plethora of replacements are proficiently being scouted by the hierarchy, as seen in other instances, notably when the club brought in the likes of Aji Alese and Dan Ballard amidst rumours surrounding the future of central defender Bailey Wright last summer.
On the other hand, we could see Stewart as an exception to this rule and instead allow him to be a central figure in Sunderland’s new philosophy, hopefully marking a return to the top flight. Yet again, this brings around the contention of the Black Cats breaking their wage structure to pin Stewart down to a new deal, with other players perhaps becoming unappeased with wage disparities.
Ultimately, it is a debate that could elongate into an array of wider discussions. The sale of Ross Stewart would not signal the end of an era at the Stadium of Light, but perhaps expedite the push for footballing redemption following previous disappointments, stimulated by new exciting prospects. The policy is not in the DNA of the club, though it may allow Wearside access back into the big time which is the objective.