Top African defender handed chance with Sunderland

WATCHING BRIEF ... Sunderland boss Martin O'Neill.
WATCHING BRIEF ... Sunderland boss Martin O'Neill.

STOPPILA Sunzu has been handed the chance to earn a permanent move to the Stadium of Light.

But the defender’s hopes of impressing Martin O’Neill have been temporarily halted by a minor injury.

HIGHLY-RATED ... Sunderland trialist Stoppila Sunzu, right.

HIGHLY-RATED ... Sunderland trialist Stoppila Sunzu, right.

The Gazette revealed last month that Sunderland were keeping tabs on Sunzu after he was seen in the Stadium of Light stands for the Black Cats’ defeat to Arsenal.

Premier League peers Reading pulled out of the race for the Zambian international in January due to a contract dispute with his club – Congolese outfit TP Mazembe – who eventually resolved that he was under contract until 2015, rather than being a free agent.

But Mazembe have now granted permission for Sunzu, pictured, to return to the North East to train with Sunderland, and he played in a behind-closed-doors game at the Academy of Light last week.

A slight knee problem forced the 23-year-old off during the encounter, and he will also head out on international duty next week for Zambia’s World Cup qualifier in Lesotho.

But Sunderland manager O’Neill is prepared to give him a longer trial before deciding whether he is worth pursuing on a permanent basis during the summer.

O’Neill said: “He played a little game the other day, but he had a swollen knee before he came here and he had to come off in the game.

“That will stop him training for a week at most.

“And then he’ll be going away to play during the international break, so we’ll monitor him during that game.

“But I haven’t seen enough of him yet to make a decision on him.”

Sunzu, who has previously had two trial spells at Reading, is rated in the £4m bracket by Mazembe after winning 37 caps for Zambia and impressing in the group stages of January’s African Cup of Nations.

But Sunderland have not yet held any discussions with Mazembe over a potential fee for the defender, who was shortlisted for African Player of the Year in 2012.

“Nobody has ever mentioned a price,” added O’Neill.

“We’ve done things by the book, approaching his club (over a trial) and they’ve said that’s fine.”

The Black Cats will be wary of paying over the odds for a player untested in European football.

But with O’Neill on the look-out for new centre-halves – with Matt Kilgallon, Titus Bramble and Kader Mangane all likely to leave the club in the summer – Sunzu offers a viable solution.

Mazembe owner Moise Katumbi said last month: “We will never stand in the way of our players as long as the right procedure is followed.”