Sunderland were one of the clubs thought to be keen on signing Harry Souttar last summer, as Stoke City decided to send the centre-half back out on loan.
And this week they’ve had a chance to see just what they could have won.
Souttar returned to Fleetwood Town in the end, where he has been taken under the wing of Joey Barton and given a chance to showcase his ability and potential in League One. Fleetwood are flying at the highest level in their history and pushing to go even higher.
They had won five in a row before they went to Sunderland in mid-week – and it would have been six but for a 97th minute equaliser. They are now seventh, level on points with Peterborough in the last play-off spot while having a game in hand.
Souttar made an incredible (and career-best so far) 17 interceptions.
And ex-Sunderland forward Stephen Elliott was an impressed onlooker.
He posted on Twitter today: “Looking back on the game on Tuesday night and away from all the drama that escalated at the end and post match, I have to say I thought Harry Souttar looked absolutely immense at CB for Fleetwood. Best centre-back I’ve seen play against Sunderland this season.”
Souttar, aged 21 and under contract at Stoke until 2022, has been in good enough form at Fleetwood to work his way into Australia’s squad. Michael O’Neill had spoken in January about exploring whether he could bring him back mid-way through his loan.
And Fleetwood’s cause is being helped by former Stoke favourite Glenn Whelan.
Whelan was shown the door unceremoniously at Hearts when Daniel Stendel took over as manager at the end of 2019 but he is yet to taste defeat in League One.
The 36-year-old has played eight matches so far and is expected to be in the Republic of Ireland squad for next month’s Euro 2020 play-off qualifier against Slovakia. That could tee up a showdown with Northern Ireland and a certain O’Neill.
Barton, just a year older, said last week: “It’s a great group. I love them, honest to God. They give you every single thing they’ve got. We’re so lucky as a coaching group.
“I’m made up for the club, the people of the town and the players. When you hear some of their stories – rejected everywhere – every one of them has their own story.
“Glenn Whelan seemed surplus to requirements at Hearts; Paul Coutts leaves Sheffield United; Ched Evans is a mad story in itself; Lewie Coyle released by Leeds – you could go through the whole group.
“It’s great for the lads to get that confidence. They’re a proper team and proper players.
“Some of these players have had incredible moments and played for incredible clubs. To the outside world, coming to Fleetwood could be seen as coming here to die. It’s the last chance, the last throw of the dice.
“That’s how I saw Fleetwood before I came here but that’s not our culture now.”