GIVEN his reputation as a footballing purist, you would imagine Tony Mowbray’s first message to a new signing would revolve around holding onto the ball and popping off slick first-time passes or dribbling past the opposition.

With Pierre Ekwah, however, things were slightly different. “I watched him in his first couple of sessions,” said Mowbray. “And then I pulled him to one side and said, ‘Right, in the next session, I want you to kick a couple of people’.” So much for football romanticism.

As a graduate of French football’s celebrated Clairefontaine academy, Ekwah was never going to lack for technical ability. His time in the academies of Chelsea and West Ham helped hone his footballing skills, so when he moved to Sunderland in January, he was more than capable of passing his way through a Championship defence.

What he lacked was the robustness and physical power to negotiate the hurly-burly of life in the English second tier. Not anymore. While he might have produced a series of effective passes during last weekend’s victory at Preston that secured Sunderland a place in the play-offs, with the pick seeing him release Joe Gelhardt behind the opposition backline in the first half, the standout element of his Man of the Match display was the way in which he strode across midfield, dictating the game with his athleticism and energy. When he needed to make up ground, he glided over the surface. When he had to close down an opponent, he was next to them in the blink of an eye. And yes, when someone needed stopping, he was not averse to sticking his leg in to make a challenge.

“What the manager said to me was something I definitely took on board,” said Ekwah, whose five years in London means he speaks perfect English with a Franco-Cockney drawl. “Coming from the Under-21s to the Championship, it’s a massive change.

“First of all, we all know that English football is really physical anyway, but that’s even more the case in the Championship. I needed to get that switch, which I think I’ve just about got my head around now. Now, I think I’m a lot more physical than I was before. Everything he said about me and told me, I really took it in and tried to show him how I had changed on the pitch, whether that was in training or in a game.”


As a result, while Ekwah’s introduction to senior English football might have been a gradual one, he now finds himself established as a key element of Sunderland’s first-choice line-up and is set to start tomorrow’s play-off semi-final first leg with Luton ahead of his compatriot Edouard Michut.

He had amassed eight substitute appearances by the time he was handed his first Sunderland start in April’s goalless draw with league leaders Burnley, but it was his next outing for the club, as a late substitute against Hull City, that would prove an early defining moment in his Black Cats career.

With his side leading 4-3 deep into stoppage time, Ekwah mistimed an unnecessary challenge in the 18-yard box that enabled Ozan Tufan to claim a last-gasp equaliser from the penalty spot. It was an error that smacked of inexperience, but while it would have been easy for Mowbray to take the 21-year-old out of the firing line when Sunderland travelled to Cardiff City three days later, he instead opted to promote Ekwah to the starting line-up. It was a show of faith that meant a lot, with the midfielder responding with a dominant midfield display that helped his side claim a 1-0 victory that played a major role in their successful scramble into the play-offs.

“It shows everything about him (Mowbray),” said Ekwah. “When I started against Cardiff, I got a couple of messages from friends and family straightaway saying, ‘I really like your coach because of what he has done for you. Not a lot of other people would have done it’.

“I come on for maybe ten minutes, give away the penalty and we drew 4-4 because of that penalty. But then the next game, you’re starting. The trust he puts in you really means a lot. You know that he’s not going to change his opinion of you just because of one mistake. He still trusts you, and when he put me back in the team, he told me he still trusted me to go out and express myself. That’s why he’s a good man, and it’s why everyone will fight for him.”

That fight continues in the play-offs tomorrow, with Sunderland hoping to become the first club in the Premier League era to win back-to-back promotions from the third tier to the top-flight.

The Black Cats were sitting in 12th position as recently as mid-March, but while they were outsiders to claim a play-off place right up to the final few minutes of the season, Ekwah always felt they were genuine promotion contenders.

“When I saw the players that we had, I realised what this team could be capable of, and then I saw a couple of games and it persuaded me even more,” he said. “My first game was against Fulham, so going to Fulham and seeing what we did down there, I came away thinking, ‘Do you know what, we actually might have a chance of going to the play-offs’.

“We didn’t put pressure on ourselves, but we played how we play and it paid off. Now, we are in the play-offs and we are a team that can compete and go to the Premier League.

“I wasn’t really shocked about getting to the play-offs – at one point, I kind of expected it. Coming from League One last season, you wouldn’t have said that Sunderland would be in the play-offs, but when you see the team, the players and the quality they have, and what they have achieved throughout the season, then it doesn’t really shock me.”