Following the arrival of Carl Winchester, we caught up with Nial Coulter from the Northern Irish Fanzine Happy Days to find out all there is to know about the Ulsterman…
Sunderland’s latest signing may not be a household name, but he is certainly someone known to new boss Lee Johnson. The new Sunderland boss has moved to sign Forest Green captain Carl Winchester on a two-and-a-half-year deal for an undisclosed fee. So, what do we know?
Winchester is a 27-year-old midfielder from Belfast. He was scouted by Oldham Athletic as a 17-year-old just as he was breaking through into the first team at Northern Irish side Linfield. As expected, his first few seasons were about adapting to full-time professional football whilst gaining experience as part of the first-team squad.
Winchester made a handful of appearances for Oldham in each of his first three seasons and he was also progressing well through the Northern Ireland international youth set-up. Under-16s, through 17s, 19s and 21s, where he would make a total of 15 appearances. Amongst the NI U21s at the time will have been a certain Conor McLaughlin and Will Grigg, so there are a couple of familiar faces for starters.
The 2010/11 season actually ended with Carl being called up to the Northern Ireland senior squad for the Carling Nations Cup (don’t ask) games against the Republic of Ireland and Wales. Winchester came off the bench against Wales to make his senior international debut in what remains his only cap to date. The Northern Ireland squad mainly consisted of fringe players and Under-21 promotions so it was a bit of a fast-track, but nevertheless the call-up brought undoubted experience and ensured he was on the international manager’s radar.
Domestically, things advanced when a certain Lee Johnson took charge of Oldham in 2013, with the team in League One. Johnson saw Winchester’s potential not only in his technical ability, but also his adaptability. First team opportunities came not only in midfield, but out wide and also as an attacking full-back.
The 2014/15 can be regarded as Carl’s breakthrough season; one where he featured regularly for Oldham. Despite Johnson being prised away to the Barnsley job in early 2015, Winchester continued to be a regular for The Latics for the remainder of the season and continued the same vein of form in 2015/16 with Winchester playing in three-quarters of the league matches.
Oldham’s annual struggles in League One led to a regular turnover of managers. In the summer of 2016, former Northern Ireland assistant manager and U21 boss Stephen Robinson took charge. He made comment that although Carl was injured when he took over, he was seen as a talented player and one he was looking forward to working with.
Unfortunately, the managerial merry-go-round struck again and Robinson was sacked after six months to be controversially replaced with John Sheridan. Whether the change in manager was a factor, but by the end of January, Winchester transferred to Cheltenham in League Two.
The move to Cheltenham allowed Winchester to establish himself as a first team regular and quickly gain plaudits for his performances and leadership. It was perhaps somewhat a surprise that 18 months later he moved to neighbours Forest Green Rovers. Again, Winchester established himself as a key player and ultimately club captain.
Forest Green progression into League Two promotion contenders these past two seasons can be attributed in part to the ability and leadership of Winchester. Lee Johnson is signing a player who has undoubtedly matured and developed in the seven years since he last managed him.
Sure, Sunderland fans may be a bit underwhelmed when hearing of the signing of a League Two midfield, but this lad was amongst the best in that division and he’s more than deserving of another shot at League One football. Joining a club the size of Sunderland under a manger who saw his potential is great reward and one Winchester will be keen to repay the faith shown in him.