Captain's Blog: Jack Colback - The Breakout Star Hiding In Plain Sight
This time last year, a young home-grown midfield player was a mainstay in the Sunderland side, had been capped by England, and was being linked with a move to the biggest clubs in the country. Much as I like and rate Jordan Henderson, it is fair to say that the hype was a little over the top.
Despite Henderson moving on in the summer to Liverpool, it's not all that different to this year really. In Jack Colback, the Sunderland midfield once again contains a young home-grown player and, if anything, what he is producing is of a better standard than his predecessor. There is no England cap, though, or transfer speculation, and the hype definitely isn't over the top.
In fact, to read the sports sections of the national newspapers or listen to football coverage, you'd barely know he existed at all.
I don't think it is any exaggeration to say that Jack Colback is one of the Premier League's best-kept secrets.
It seems inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between Jack Colback and Jordan Henderson, but I think that may be a little unfair. After all, Henderson definitely wasn't alone in struggling to find some consistency to his game under Steve Bruce's management and it shouldn't be forgotten that Colback is a year older.
The squad-wide surge in confidence that Martin O'Neill brought and from which Jack Colback benefited must also not be forgotten. Personally I'd have loved to have seen Henderson in a Martin O'Neill Sunderland team, but it wasn't to be.
The prevalent view, however, seems to be that whilst Henderson is athlete first and footballer second, the opposite can be said for his midfield successor, and anyone witnessing Colback's exquisite pass for Nicklas Bendtner to equalise against Bolton would be hard-pressed to disagree.
It was a piece of midfield play that carried all the hallmarks of quality. The appreciation of space to get free, the presence of mind to turn, the perfect weight and timing of the pass - and all with barely a downward glance at the ball. And yet, it was just the latest in a long line of fine performances to go almost entirely unnoticed by the wider footballing audience.
The amusing thing is that Colback is actually hiding in plain sight. Those specifically hoping to catch a glimpse of an exciting break-out star cast their eyes over Sunderland every single week. But whilst James McClean wows the public on a weekly basis with his eye-catching throw-back wing play, taking all the plaudits as he goes, Colback's fine work just inside him blends into the background.
Unquestionably, it is a matter of perception and impact rather than Colback lacking in quality. When editing a game down to a collection of attacking highlights, a lung-busting James McClean burst down the wing is always going to make the final cut ahead of a sumptuous yet largely inconsequential Jack Colback pass. The striking 6 foot plus, and more attack-minded, Henderson will always catch the eye more than the unassuming and smaller Colback as well.
That may all be about to change, however. Astonishingly, the Bolton match last week was the first time under Martin O'Neill that Lee Cattermole and Jack Colback have partnered each other in the centre of midfield. Instead, Colback has played the majority of his football in midfield this season with the forward-thinking Craig Gardner, which naturally saw him assume the more defensive role.
It certainly hasn't been a disaster of course. In the FA Cup replay against Middlesborough, for example, he delivered a dominant performance in which he was able to pull the strings for the whole team from a deeper position.
But with Cattermole back in the side, Colback was freed up to influence the game further forward, and he really showed that he had it in his locker. Not only his passing shone, but also his ability to open up space for others with clever and incisive running off the ball.
Reassuringly, it is apparent that Colback's talents have not gone unnoticed by his manager. "I have more belief in Jack than he has in himself. He needs to believe he can mix it in there with the best in the Premier League because he can", purred O'Neill following the home win against Liverpool in March. Despite some admirable emergency performances in the position this season, O'Neill this week also dismissed the possibility of Colback being remolded into a full-back.
It all points to the player being a big part of whatever Martin O'Neill has planned for Sunderland's future, and with the quality Colback possesses, that sadly means he won't be a secret for very much longer.