Lee Johnson has identified Alex Pritchard as the playmaker capable of “unlocking doors” for Sunderland as they strive not only to escape League One but to indulge in the sort of cup giant-killing run rarely seen in these parts since 1973.
“Alex can do things most people at this level aren’t capable of,” says his manager as Pritchard prepares to remind a wider audience of what might have been on Tuesday night at Arsenal. “He can pull the strings for us.”
The 28-year-old former Tottenham and England Under-21 attacking midfielder experienced a slow burn start to his career on Wearside after signing from Huddersfield in the summer. Yet having overcome first Covid and then a neck injury, he is establishing himself as an essential component of a side seven games unbeaten and third in League One, only two points short of an automatic promotion place.
There is also this Carabao Cup quarter-final in north London to look forward to. “To go to the Emirates having been a Spurs player back in the day, it’s obviously a big one,” says Pritchard, who grew up in Essex. “My family and friends will be there in numbers.”
He is talking over Zoom from Sunderland’s training ground, a Premier League-calibre facility studded with memorabilia of a more glorious past, most notably relating to that 1973 FA Cup triumph against Leeds United.
“Everyone’s seen shocks in every cup competition over the years and hopefully we can create another one,” Pritchard says. “Arsenal are playing really well at the moment but we look at this tie as a game we can compete in; we believe we can get to the next round.”
The conversation turns to the past, his nine England Under-21 caps and the encouragement he was given by Peter Taylor, his manager at the 2013 Under-20 World Cup in Turkey.
“Alex is a terrific player with a terrific touch and football brain,” said Taylor at the time. “He’s an intelligent footballer who is not afraid to take the ball in tight areas and not frightened to take a tackle.”
Pritchard sighs. “That was a long time ago,” he says. “I played there, at that level, but now I’m here, in League One … for whatever reason. So … yeah for sure I’d like to remind people what I can do at Arsenal but it’s not about me; it’s about us as a collective. We’re facing a great side and, to get any sort of decent result, we need to play as a team.”
For quite a while he was regarded as a star in the making at White Hart Lane but, after loans at Peterborough, Swindon, Brentford and West Brom, Pritchard joined Norwich for £8m in 2016 after only two senior appearances for Spurs.
Given the talk that Mauricio Pochettino’s pressing style of that era simply did not suit his game he was possibly in the wrong place at the wrong time. A nasty ankle injury sustained in 2015 hardly helped his cause either but he eventually ended up in the Premier League, albeit fairly briefly, after an £11m move to Huddersfield and did not move north-east to tread water in the third tier.
“We’re in League One now but Sunderland was in the Premier League not so long ago and you never know what you can do,” says a player who has previously conceded he lost both “confidence” and “mojo” towards the end of his stint at Huddersfield. “Playing at Arsenal is a good opportunity for people in this team to see where you can get to in the game. There are so many pathways to the top and this tie against high-level opposition is a great platform. There’s a lot of potential in our team, young players who can get to that level.”
Pritchard has been studying recordings of Arsenal’s 4-1 win at Leeds on Saturday evening but seems more excited than daunted. “It was great to watch,” he enthuses. “You see how they pass and press all over the pitch and you know Mikel Arteta’s squad is immense. I played with Emile Smith Rowe at Huddersfield for a good while and you could see the great ability he had. But he’s a top player now.”
Sunderland are aiming for a similar metamorphosis under the stewardship of their 25-year-old billionaire owner, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, and the thoroughly modern Johnson. The latter has widened his managerial remit to include offering players tutorials from a sleep specialist in addition to encouraging them to read novels and holding frank group discussions on the perils of gambling and sex addiction.
Johnson’s holistic approach, not to mention his enthusiasm for a passing game, explains why Pritchard turned down overtures from Championship clubs last summer. “I had other offers,” he says. “But it was important to be with a head coach who understands me as a player and as a person and who has a playing style that suits me.”
He would like nothing better than to repay the Sunderland manager’s faith on Tuesday night. “We’re going to the Emirates with confidence,” says the Spurs old boy. “We’re going there thinking we can get to the semi-final. There are always cup shocks.”