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'It's the right time': Carl Winchester aiming to unlock potential after sealing move to sleeping giant Sunderland

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Carl Winchester has been tipped to shine after swapping Forest Green Rovers for Sunderland.

Carl Winchester has been tipped to shine after swapping Forest Green Rovers for Sunderland.

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Carl Winchester has been tipped to shine after swapping Forest Green Rovers for Sunderland.

There's a feeling that Carl Winchester's latest move is a real coming-of-age moment.

The Belfast man, 27, has swapped League Two promotion-chasers Forest Green Rovers for League One hopefuls Sunderland.

The Black Cats are 10th in the table but, just three points off the play-off places, are hoping to earn what they believe would be a belated return to England's second tier.

They suffered back-to-back relegations from the Premier League to League One in 2017 and 2018 and have since been denied promotion twice; first by Charlton in the play-off final and then by the points-per-game deciphering of final places when last season was cut short.

Now in a third year in League One, it's the first time the club has ever spent multiple seasons outside England's top two divisions, the 1987-88 campaign previously their only spell in what was then Division Three.

Combined with the club's sizeable fan-base, still attracting an average of over 30,000 supporters to the Stadium of Light last season, it's a history that means the club is currently regarded as playing well below its level.

"I watched the Netflix documentary," laughed Winchester, referencing the well-known documentary that charted Sunderland's fall from grace. "The club is huge. It doesn't deserve to be in League One, or even the Championship. It's a Premier League club and I'm proud to be here."

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In those terms, Winchester's move - for an undisclosed fee - could well be a match made in heaven.

His Forest Green Rovers boss Mark Cooper said last season that he believed his skipper should be a Championship player, a claim echoed by his new manager Lee Johnson, who believes Winchester was playing 'below his natural level' in League Two.

He should know as Johnson managed Winchester at Oldham in League One from 2013 to 2015. It was there that the midfielder made his breakthrough in professional football, having joined from Linfield aged only 17.

Johnston recalls 'every top club' eyeing up Winchester's progress in those days, before his career actually dropped a division, with both Cheltenham and Rovers in the fourth rung of the English football ladder.

Now, the player himself agrees it's time to unlock that long-held potential and move on up.

"It's the right time for me in my career to progress," he said. "I'm coming into my prime - 27, 28, 29 - so I'm hoping I will settle in well with the lads, get to know them in training and kick on from there.

"Every player wants to play as high (up the leagues) as they can, but here you have everything already in place to make that happen and I'll do my best to try and make it happen.

"Sunderland is a massive club and once I had heard of their interest there was only one place that I wanted to come. You can't turn down a team like this.

Winchester has just a single international cap for Northern Ireland, obtained way back in May 2011 in a Celtic Cup match against Wales.

He'll no doubt hope that a move to such a sleeping giant of English football, where he will be playing alongside current internationals Conor McLaughlin and Tom Flanagan as well as Will Grigg, just might catapult him into new manager Ian Baraclough's thoughts come selection-time for the opening World Cup qualifiers in March.

Before that, of course, he will have to make a bright start to life in his new surroundings, something manager Johnston doesn't expect to be an issue.

"After assessing our squad and establishing the profile of midfielder we wanted to bring in, we evaluated all the elements, inclusive of the data, and felt that Carl was the right player to add to our squad,” he said.

"He is a good player who is in the prime of his career, and his versatility means he can play in a number of positions, ensuring he will also bring depth to our squad."

Winchester could make his Sunderland debut as early as tomorrow night, when Port Vale visit in the Football League Trophy, while his first league game could come on Saturday lunch-time away at AFC Wimbledon.


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