One of the joys of supporting Sunderland these days is that there are some genuinely exciting young players coming through the ranks. Whilst Jordan Henderson's massive money move to Liverpool earlier this summer grabbed the headlines, there is a very real expectancy at the club that he is only the first in a very long line of our academy graduates capable of a rise to prominence.
Yesterday, the Under-20 World Cup kicked off in Colombia giving us the chance to have a good look at a couple of young players for which exciting futures are predicted. Whilst Ryan Noble's involvement in the tournament was ended by injury before it even began, Blair Adams and Billy Knott were named in the staring eleven for England's opening game against North Korea.
Following his release from Chelsea last year, it is fair to say that Knott has excelled at academy and reserve levels and developed a reputation for himself as a player of genuine promise, and on this evidence it was easy to see why. Knott was deployed in a position just behind a lone forward – the kind of role Stephane Sessegnon is starting to enjoy for the first team. Meanwhile, Blair Adams took up his usual position of left back.
The first half proved a lively affair and Billy Knott lived up to his budding reputation by being at the centre of everything. Two early set pieces were fired in from the right, both beating the first man. Does he somehow possess some kind of mystical immunity to the set-piece coaching at Sunderland or something? I'd have thought we'd have coached that nonsense out him months ago. Clearing the first man? Madness. It'll never catch on, I tell thee. Anyway, where was I...
Ah yes – the England match. Knott's influence on the game continued to grow. Showing some real tenacity and desire to press the ball high up the pitch, he won possession before feeding Saido Berahino on the edge of the area. Berahino, who really wasn't as good as his name suggests he should be, saw his low shot saved before the rebound was cleared off the line. Knott then turned his attentions to finding the net himself, and was unfortunate to be unable to make a controlled headed connection with Matt Phillips' right wing cross after ghosting unmarked into the 6-yard box. Next he flashed a long distance half-volleyed snap-shot marginally wide. He was playing with a real verve and swagger, but when he headed a guilt-edged chance wide on the stroke of half time when it looked easier to score it seemed everyone, including himself, was perhaps resigned to it not being his day. From an England point of view, the second half descended into something of a farce, Knott cut a frustrated figure as he struggled to see enough of the ball and was eventually replaced by Dean Parrett with a quarter of an hour to go. The game meandered itself to a depressing goalless stalemate.
And what of Blair Adams? No, I haven't forgotten him. In truth, it was an unremarkable yet solid enough performance in a game in which it was always going to be tough for him to shine. Korea sat deep so he was rarely tested defensively. He attacked with some vigour when the situation facilitated it, however, flashing a dangerous ball across the box in the first half that the Korean defence had to scramble away for a corner, and he almost deceived the goalkeeper with what was little more than routine dink into the box in the second half. But, despite looking cool and composed in possession at all times, it certainly wouldn't be accurate to say that Adams shone in any way.
It was Knott who made the impression, and a very favourable one indeed. However, if you were hoping he may prove to be the long term answer to our even longer term left wing problem, then I'd suggest a rethink was in order. He was more like a little, younger, rawer, Canvey Island version of Stephane Sessegnon. And like Sessegnon, on this evidence his touch and ability to find pockets of space in a central position would see him wasted should he be restricted to one wing.