Joe Gelhardt has waited a long time for a first-team opening but it seems one has finally come his way. The Leeds United loanee is in line for a Sunderland debut this weekend as Tony Mowbray’s side travel to south London to take on Millwall in the Championship.
It’s a huge game for both sides at The Den and the winner could move into the play-off places, depending on results elsewhere in the second tier, of course. Gelhardt is expected to be the man leading the line for the Black Cats in the capital on Saturday afternoon and it’s fair to say he’ll be desperate to take the opportunity with both hands.
The youngster’s struggles for game time at Elland Road over the opening half of the Premier League season have been well documented. Jesse Marsch could regularly be seen turning in the 20-year-old’s direction, but his stints on the field were too short, often appearing just a few minutes before injury time was signalled.
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As such, the striker can be forgiven for jumping at the chance to leave on loan, with Sunderland offering him the minutes he needs at what is a pivotal point in his career. That switch came last week and after being cup-tied for last Saturday’s clash with Fulham, it seems Gelhardt will be given the nod to make his bow in red and white.
Ross Stewart’s Achilles injury has opened the door for him and he knows if he performs well, he could be in the frame to make the position his own for the rest of the campaign as Sunderland push for promotion back to the promised land of the Premier League. It’s the chance Gelhardt has clearly been desperate for and few would bet against him taking the next step in his development at the Stadium of Light.
"He's just excited and he wants to play,” Mowbray said in his pre-match press conference when asked about Gelhardt, as per the Chronicle. "When I discussed it [the move] with him, he knew we had Ross Stewart and wondered if he was going to play enough football.
“I told him that if his talent was what I believe it is, we'll find a way - we'll play two up front, or whatever. For Joffy he will now feel he is going to play. We are going to be relying on him to score goals, he has to get into the box - and yet he does want to come to the ball and show how direct and strong and powerful he is.
"We're all excited to see how he fits in with Amad [Diallo] and Pat [Roberts] and Jack [Clarke]. We need to keep him fit, strong and robust. It seems a negative that we go into this period with one out-and-out striker, yet if that one out-and-out striker knows that he's the man and takes on the burden and scores goals, he'll be a huge success.”
Gelhardt will know Leeds fans will be watching his progress at Sunderland with keen interest, but supporters may be paying even closer attention this weekend due to the possibility he could come up against a familiar face or two. Charlie Cresswell and Jamie Shackleton are both on loan at Millwall and although neither man has started in recent weeks, they could be involved off the bench.
Shackleton has appeared as a substitute in the Lions’ last nine league games, while Cresswell made his first Championship outing since early December last time out against Cardiff City. They’ll be friendly before kick-off and after full-time, but if they get on the field they’ll be keen to ensure Gelhardt’s Sunderland debut is a miserable one.
Gelhardt could be set to come up against another couple of Leeds loanees this month, with Tyler Roberts’ QPR set to host the Black Cats on February 14 and Leo Hjelde’s Rotherham United on February 21.
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