As Chris Maguire clattered the ball into the roof of the net and some 4,000 men, women and children went barmy behind it, it was hard not to feel some semblance of sorrow for his American teammate.
Lynden Gooch showed no hesitation in joining Wearside's newly anointed king as he celebrated at Doncaster last Tuesday evening, yet few could blame Gooch if he did so with a tinge of disappointment that it wasn’t he who had nabbed the game’s winner. After all, it was his driving run towards goal which brought about that Sunderland attack, and his delightful left-footed shot which banged off the upright and eventually resulted in Maguire's tap-in finish.
To see Gooch striding forward and leaving defenders in his wake was nothing new. He has been doing it all season, nowhere more clearly than at Luton Town back in August, when a similar move saw him play in Josh Maja for a smartly taken goal. And while there is little suggestion that Gooch's contribution has gone unnoticed, it remains that the 22-year-old from California has often been less readily praised than some of the more standout members of the team.
For where Maguire and Maja have been conspicuous for their goal tallies and, in the case of the former, general mischief-making, Gooch has gone about his business rather more quietly. That run at the Keepmoat Stadium last week might not have registered in his goals and assists total, but by Saturday and the visit of Southend he was amongst the action again, turning a smart cross around the corner onto the head of George Honeyman for the opener.
That was Gooch’s seventh assist in 13 League One games and, though few doubted he would flourish in the third tier, it has been no less enjoyable to see just how quickly he has adapted to his new surroundings. The division may not be quite as robust as Sunderland fans remember from their last visit here, but it remains that Gooch’s blend of energy and physical nous have served him perfectly so far this term.
Certainly, Jack Ross has realised his worth. When fit, Gooch has featured in every league game this season, and in all bar one as a starter. That sole substitute appearance came at Shrewsbury Town on the back of a two-match injury layoff. Far from blending back into proceedings quietly, he was involved in the opening goal after just four minutes on the field, sending in a cross that Salop’s Omar Beckles could only screw into his own goal. Less than half an hour later, it was Gooch again at the ready, laying on Luke O’Nien for his first SAFC goal.
Those assists have been supplemented by three strikes of his own, the first that memorable last-minute header against Charlton on the opening day that gave this new era its lift-off moment. Two more came in the 4-1 thumping of Rochdale: a penalty, despatched after he himself had been fouled, and then a well struck effort into the far corner, the result of another forceful drive into the box.
Gooch will doubtless hope to have notched even more this term and, indeed, he is unfortunate not to have done so. But what he offers to the side cannot be measured in basic statistics. His real worth is his interchangeability: tenacious in regaining possession at one end, swift and assertive in retaining it whilst moving towards the other one. Gooch is frequently this Sunderland side’s ‘out ball’, the man Ross looks to when his side needs to relieve pressure and the man who, more often than not, delivers exactly what is expected from him.
It is easy to forget his youth. Given the flux of the summer, the fact he remains one of the few constants from days gone by often gives the impression that he is a senior figure leading the charge back to the Championship. Yet he does not turn 23 until Christmas Eve and, for all he was frequently sighted in matchday squads last season, it should not go ignored that he only managed 12 starts during that miserable year. Similarly, while bringing him into the first-team fold was one of the few good things David Moyes did on Wearside, his role was swiftly reduced as the realities of a terminal relegation tussle set in.
No such troubles plague Gooch or his teammates right now. Granted, it would have been disappointing if he had not shone in this division. Gooch has four senior international caps and, even as he struggled for a consistent starting spot last season, it was clear there was talent lurking within. Sunderland’s new start arrived at the opportune moment for him, and he has wasted little time in grasping his chance with both hands.
The downside of all this is the onus it has placed on his employers. Where at the end of last season he was a talented winger yet to reach his potential, now he looks like one of the better players in this league and, with his current contract set to expire at the end of June, it is a certainty that he will attract suitors from elsewhere. Should Sunderland fail to achieve promotion this term they will struggle to retain his services; should Ross and his men return to the Championship at the first time of asking, they will still face a battle to keep him, especially under a regime reluctant to let costs spiral out of control as they have in the past.
Yet while salary restrictions are necessary and should be welcomed after years of waste, for the likes of Gooch and Maja, another whose deal expires in the summer, certain allowances should be made. In what is his first season as a regular starter, Gooch has performed with a consistency that few around him have been able to match. If they are all able to replicate the performance levels of the midfielder, Sunderland should win this league at a canter. That is not to say that he is the finished article, nor is it to suggest that he will go on to become a world beater. Rather it is to highlight the sterling part he has played in the first stage of the revolution.
Lynden Gooch’s role in the first chapter of the rest of Sunderland’s life was cemented as soon as that header on the opening day struck the back of the net. Now the club should seek to ensure he plays his part for years to come.