Who has played more Championship minutes than any other Sunderland player this season?

George Honeyman.
George Honeyman.

When Simon Grayson weighed up his first competitive starting XI for Sunderland in August, much of it picked itself.

There was one big surprise, however, with George Honeyman named in the side to face Derby.

Honeyman had been a regular in pre-season but without looking like he was set for a pivotal role.

As it was, Grayson saw his energy and discipline as perfect for the right-wing role in a 4-4-2 formation.

Most importantly, he was a player who could be trusted to carry out instructions and his role gave Aiden McGeady the freedom, on the other flank, to roam as he pleased.

Sunderland were good that night against Derby, and you do wonder whether Grayson looks back and regrets moving away from the simplicity of his set-up in those early games.

He had privately decided to take Sunderland back to basics, but, as he had done at former club Preston, his pragmatic approach saw him eventually rattle through a number of systems, often during games.

Honeyman was so often the sticking plaster, playing every position from right wing-back to, only on the rarest of occasions, his favoured No 10 position.

Sunderland have failed to establish any real identity on the pitch this season and, with both Grayson and successor Chris Coleman searching desperately for the solution, Honeyman has often been the man shoehorned into an unfamiliar role.

In that sense, he is a manager’s player – one who does not win so many plaudits but racks up the minutes because he is trusted implicitly.

It is little surprise, then, that he has emerged to play more Championship minutes than any other Sunderland player this season.

On Saturday, if was put to Coleman that Honeyman had emerged from the defeat at QPR with credit, given the way he had pushed the team forward after losing sent-off keeper Jason Steele and tried to force openings in the final third.

His running was relentless and dizzying, as it always is.

Coleman was beyond effusive in his response, saying that Honeyman was 100% the kind of player Sunderland needed to build around, no matter what league they find themselves in next season.

His mentality, Coleman said, was as good as anything he had seen in professional football.

It called to mind a comment from Grayson earlier in the season, when he admitted that an angry post-defeat debrief had been held in the dressing room and that it had been a youngster rattling cages.

Deduction suggested it must be Honeyman. He has been part of the furniture at the Academy for many a year now, but he has emerged as a real leader in the first-team squad.

He will certainly be a key player next season.

Coleman’s comments raised eyebrows nevertheless and, certainly, the quality of Honeyman’s attacking output has been wildly inconsistent this season.

His lack of playing time in his favoured position is a mitigating factor, but, on the ball, there is no doubt that there is significant room for improvement.

On commitment, there are no question marks, but if he is to be the spine of the Sunderland side for years to come then he will need to learn to look after the ball better and to better control the tempo of the game from midfield.

Coleman, of course, pointed out that he is yet to reach 50 games in senior football and perhaps that composure will come with experience.

That he sits top of the list of minutes played underlines how badly Sunderland rebuilt their squad this summer.

Second and third on the list, somewhat inevitably, are Lee Cattermole and John O’Shea.

They are two players who should have been phased out, at least in part, some time ago and it raises a big question mark over Sunderland’s recruitment department that they were again not replaced adequately.

Indeed, only four post-relegation signings feature in the top 10.

Two of those are Lewis Grabban, who left in January despite Martin Bain’s assertion that he had signed players with the right character, and keeper Robbin Ruiter, who has struggled.

McGeady and Tyias Browning are the other two, and their form has been fleeting at best.

It neatly tells a tale of a squad lacking balance and consistency, searching for a cohesive identity.

Both Grayson and Coleman have been relieved that Honeyman has been there to try and fill some of the glaring gaps.

SUNDERLAND’S MINUTE MEN

George Honeyman - 2638 minutes

Lee Cattermole - 2403 minutes

John O’Shea - 2338 minutes

Tyias Browning - 2244 minutes

Bryan Oviedo - 2206 minutes

Adam Matthews - 2168 minutes

Aiden McGeady - 2100 minutes

Robbin Ruiter - 1800 minutes

Lewis Grabban - 1558 minutes

Lamine Kone - 1486 minutes

stats courtesy of whoscored.com