Dion Sanderson’s Sunderland career can be evenly broken up into three segments full of frustration, elation and heartbreak.
It might not completely define a Shakespearian romantic tragedy but it comes close to replicating some of the themes laid out in theatres across the globe; pardon the pun.
Sanderson had to work hard to finally earn an opportunity to play. After signing on loan from Wolves, Phil Parkinson struggled to find his best position and also couldn’t fit him into the team’s plans.
The young defender featured only three times under the former Mackems manager, a decision that looks stranger and stranger as the weeks go by.
Once Lee Johnson took over, he took the 21-year-old under his wing and has transformed him into one of the most feared centre-backs in the third tier.
It was a steady progression at first for Sanderson but now he looks a player beyond his years, someone who shoulders the responsibility of the entire team.
“At his age level he is an absolute Rolls-Royce,” the manager admitted back in February.
Sanderson has profited from an injury to Bailey Wright. The Australian was missing for a period of two months towards the beginning of the year and it proved game-changing for the Sunderland loanee’s career.
He was now one of the first names on the team sheet and alongside Luke O’Nien, was swatting attackers to one side with phenomenal ease. During Sunderland’s 14-game unbeaten run, the club kept eight clean sheets.
However, after discovering his role in the side and becoming a force to be reckoned with, he is now back on the sidelines again.
It’s a huge tragedy for Sanderson who has returned to Wolves temporarily while he recovers from a back problem. It was first thought that he’d be ruled out for the rest of the season but the manager remains optimistic he can still play a part.
The youngster has been so good that Wolves want to splash seven figures during the summer to land him permanently.
However, if a move doesn’t materialise, Johnson shouldn’t be fearful. After all, they already have the best defender in League One right in their midst; Arbenit Xhemajli.
The Kosovan was signed from Neuchatel Xamax last summer on a two-year deal but he’s not actually made a single appearance for the club.
That’s because he’s been missing for the entire campaign with a torturous cruciate ligament injury.
Johnson already loves him, however, and it’s clear to see why.
Speaking about Xhemajli’s recovery this week, he commented: “Arby is back out on the grass as well and it is really nice to see him out there.”
Johnson added: “He’s a lovely lad and when I came into the football club I’d done my research and it was interesting that statistically he came out as the best defender in the division, albeit that may have been a bit skewed in terms of the weighting given to the foreign division that he came from.”
With that in mind, it would be a big surprise if the 23-year-old didn’t have a role to play next season once he’s recovered.
Sunderland have struggled significantly since Sanderson’s injury with Wright and O’Nien proving problematic in recent weeks. If anything summed up the lack of confidence in the backline now, it would be the latter’s own goal against Accrington.
Xhemajli is highly rated and providing his rehab has gone well, he’ll be a huge asset to Sunderland next season.