Sunderland's Future: What Next For Knott, Noble, Laing & Co?

What does the immediate future hold for the likes of Billy Knott? Read what we think here!

While we look at players who could be coming into the club, and we're sure that there will be plenty, theres also cause for concern when it comes to our youth side.

We have what is regarded as a very talented group coming through Kevin Ball and Ged MacNamee's system and are nearing that stage in their development where they could use experience better than what the Premier Reserve League can offer.

Many went out on loan last season, but here we consider what the future could hold for the likes of Louis Laing, Billy Knott and the rest of them...

As Martin O'Neill begins to re-shape the Sunderland he inherited, there remains a curiosity whether a member of his squad will come from the Academy. Following Jack Colback's breakthrough season last year, and Jordan Henderson's the year previous, expectations to bring through another have seldom been higher.

A number of young players have been introduced to first team football; Louis Laing, Craig Lynch and Ryan Noble all experienced the Premier League as Sunderland withered down to the proverbial bare bones in Steve Bruce's final full season in charge, yet on the face of it they all seem some way away from claiming a place under O'Neill.

Noble is the most interesting one - having not long turned 21 and rumoured to be in the last year of his contract this coming season could easily be one of reckoning at Sunderland, yet the back injuries caused by his growth spurts have ironically stunted his development. The impact of James McClean, and indeed Colback, has revised any preconceptions about young footballers in that if they have not evolved into top-flight players by the time they are Noble's age then it's time to show them the door. Aside from his two-goals-in-nine loan spell at Hartlepool last season, Noble has shown nothing in the lower leagues that suggests he can become the local lad banging the goals in that we all want him to be, yet his attitude during his time away at Pools deviates from an egotistical young man that many have him square-pegged as.

Like any good youth development programme, Sunderland has begun planning for the eventuality that Noble may not be ‘the one'. French teenager Mikael Mandron, who is every bit the ‘physical specimen' that Bruce publically criticised Noble for not being, had already stepped up to reserve football by the end of the season in his first year as an Academy player.

Billy Knott's time on the loan has been rather impressive. Returning to London, where many feared he may get mixed up into the sort of bother that saw him released from Chelsea, the midfielder made 20 league appearances for AFC Wimbledon, scoring three goals that had all the hallmarks of a man capable of playing far higher than League Two.

In theory, there is a place carved for Knott in the squad; as an in-the-hole type he is the closest we have to a replacement for Stephane Sessegnon in terms of style of play, yet the current gulf in ability means that Knott may have to be patient for his chance. From the U20 World Cup last summer to regular, competitive football has been a decent progression in the last twelvemonth, and at 19, there is plenty of scope for his improvement to continue.

Laing is of the same age, but is far more decorated having represented - and captained - England from U16 level up to U19s. But, after an encouraging start to a loan spell at Wycombe Wanderers (Laing's debut in a 3-0 win over Rochdale was just the second time they had kept a clean sheet all season, and this was in January), the gifted centre-back found himself out of the side as the Chairboys' defence personified the sieve, allowing attackers to pass through at ease as they were relegated to League Two.

Now, I find this to be a good thing for Laing, especially in the long run. Find me a player no, a man, who has never encountered a setback in his life and I'll show you a liar. Or David Cameron. Or both. The point I'm getting at is Laing has seen the early part of his career blossom in the way that he would have wanted. This loan spell was meant to do similar; providing a hugely talented, but physically raw centre-back the game time to elevate him on to better things. It didn't quite work out like that, not to the extent it did with Knott, but he will learn from that and should another opportunity arise to test himself in the Football League he will be better for having gone through those testing times at Wycombe.

In the same way that Noble spent time at Derby and Watford as a teenager without much game time, Laing's age-grade centre-back partner John Egan did similar with Crystal Palace and Sheffield United last season. It will be interesting to see what the young Irishman has learned from those spells, and this summer where he has graduated to the Republic's under-21 setup. Egan is similarly highly rated within the Academy and reserve/development team setups, and so they must navigate the next stage of his development wisely, most likely with Noble's past experiences in mind.

With Bruce now operating at a lower level with a befitting budget, one wonders whether he may come calling for Laing - a player he clearly rates. Robert Koren is being linked here, there and everywhere, and a similar type of player can be found in Knott. Having thrived in the spotlight at Wimbledon, the next phase of his development is a loan spell at a higher level, albeit after a pre-season outing or two under the watchful eye of O'Neill and his staff.

Barring an impressive pre-season, I fear we may get a year off in terms of seeing an Academy player graduate to the first team, which is by no means a failure. From a technical standpoint, Knott has the potential to eclipse Henderson and Colback, whilst Laing's passing ability from the back is something often lusted after by Sunderland fans. Perhaps good things really do come to those who wait.

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