AFTER watching his Sunderland side lose 1-0 to Wigan Athletic in his first game in charge, it was obvious that Lee Johnson would make some significant changes. What was less easy to predict, however, was that the start of the Johnson era would mark the end of the road for a player who had been so pivotal under the Black Cats’ previous two managers.

Prior to Johnson’s appointment, Chris Maguire had started ten of Sunderland’s 14 league games. Since December’s defeat to Wigan, he has started none of 25.

From a position where he was an integral part of his side’s first-choice line-up, scoring in early-season games against Bristol Rovers, Swindon and Gillingham, Maguire suddenly finds himself struggling to even claim a place in the matchday squad.

On Tuesday, at Wigan’s DW Stadium, he did not feature in Johnson’s 18-man squad. He is one of the 19 players to have been selected ahead of tomorrow’s game at Blackpool, but is far from certain to make the final cut. Indeed, with his contract due to expire in the summer, there is every chance he has already made his final Sunderland start.

“We have been ridiculously open and honest with him, right from the start,” said Johnson. “He knows exactly where he stands, which is important. It’s not always easy to hear in those moments, because of the professional pride, but I think that honesty is really important.

“He’s in the squad (for Blackpool) – he’s one of the 19 travelling – and he’s part of it in terms of personality, and also performance. But we have got a lot of attacking options and talent.

“If he was a centre-half, there’s no doubt he would have been playing, but he’s in a position where there’s a lot of competition that there is for the number ten and wide positions. Right now, there are three or four potential players, including Chrissy, just for that right-midfield role. It’s a difficult one to decide because there’s a lot of talent there.”

Be that as it may, Maguire does offer something different in terms of his energy, persistence and will to win. While Sunderland might boast plenty of ball players in the attacking areas, they do not really have anyone who can replicate Maguire’s ability to hassle and harry defenders, and act as a pest to the opposition in their defensive third.

The Black Cats could probably have done with the Scotsman’s abrasiveness as they folded meekly at Wigan on Tuesday night, but while Johnson continues to pay lip service to the notion of Maguire earning a recall before the end of the season, the strong likelihood is that he will remain a peripheral presence at best.

“I think he can still play a role,” said Johnson. “But when you get a lot of players back fit, there’s always going to be one or two that step into that mantra where they end up being the spare player. That can be really frustrating, especially for a player that’s in their twilight years or over 30 and has had a lot of experience. We know Chris’ quality, and we know what he can bring us.”

Whereas Maguire remained on Wearside when questions were asked over his future in January, Elliot Embleton left the North-East to join tomorrow’s opponents, Blackpool, on loan.

While he might be ineligible for tomorrow’s game, he could hardly have made a better impression at Bloomfield Road, with his incisive midfield performances a key factor in Blackpool’s surge into the play-off places.

Johnson is adamant it was right to allow Embleton to develop his career away from the Stadium of Light, but is equally insistent that the 22-year-old North-Easterner will be an important part of his plans next season.

“It’s an easy decision in the summer – Elliot comes back and he’s in the squad,” he said. “He’s somebody that has come through our academy and that we want to promote.

"When we looked at it, we couldn’t offer him what he wanted and he might have ended up in a situation like Chrissy has, not being in the 18. And that wouldn’t have been conducive to ours or his future, moving forward next season.”