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Sunderland's International Youngsters Demonstrate a Kicking Loan Return

Sunderland have three youngsters on duty with international sides this week, and with a shift in policy of late at the Academy of Light, each demonstrates the value of young players going out on loan at 'lower-level' clubs early in their career. Perhaps a kicking never hurt anyone after all.

Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

Duncan Watmore and Jordan Pickford are with England squads this week. Watmore is with the under-21s and Pickford has been promoted to the senior squad in place of Burnley’s Tom Heaton who picked up an injury on Sunday. Meanwhile, Lynden Gooch has linked up with Jurgen Klinsmann’s USA side for a friendly against New Zealand on Wednesday.

What all three have in common is a spell away from the Academy of Light, and the insipid Under-21s league in England. Watmore, Pickford and Gooch are demonstrating the value of having been sent on loan to learn their trade at a lower level early in their career.

Duncan Watmore was no stranger to the lower leagues when he joined Sunderland as a 19-year old from Altrincham F.C. But he was swiftly sent on loan to Hibernian, and spent six months at the Leith-based club during the 2013-14 season.

By all accounts, Watmore pulled up no trees in his spell at Easter Road, but he did score his first senior career goal during a nine-game run which was curtailed due to an injury he picked up.

The notable feature though is perhaps the ‘toughening up’ he endured from a baptism in the Scottish Premier League. Hibs were managed by Terry Butcher at the time and his style of football was no-nonsense at best. Endless long balls and a relentlessly direct approach were perhaps an apparent dismal baptism for a young Duncan Watmore.

But, his loan spell in Scotland was hampered by something of a kicking, which resulted in the injury which restricted his number of appearances. Hibs fans remember him as a ‘wiry winger’ who stood little chance up against the cloggers of the Scottish Premier League.

Since then Duncan Watmore has bulked up, and whilst his game still requires refinement, his naturally direct style of play has benefited from his continued physical development. One thing is sure – he wouldn’t be so easily intimidated by a Raith Rovers centre-half with a whiff of fear in his nose nowadays.

Likewise Lynden Gooch. Sunderland’s young American midfielder had a spell on loan at Conference side Gateshead before heading to Doncaster Rovers last season. And, like his colleague Duncan Watmore, Gooch hit few headlines in League One.

But, the 20-year old admits he learned a valuable lesson at the Keepmoat Stadium under the watch of Darren Ferguson; but the skills he acquired were not so much of a technical nature, rather of the toughening up variety of being up against grown men plying their trade in England’s lower divisions:

You have to get used to it, and get used to it quick. I could handle that, I was strong enough to deal with it. But it is tough for a lot of young players that have to deal with that, because it is completely different football. In under-21s football, people aren’t smashing you.

And, it is for that reason many League One and League Two clubs are loathe to take a chance on a young player whose experience has been restricted to the Under-21 league. There is no guarantee that the youngster on which a chance is taken will be able to cut it up against the thirty-year old who relies on besting him to earn a living.

New loan regulations which prevent temporary deals being agreed on a short-term basis have hampered the prospects of youngsters sent to develop in the lower leagues.

Even outstanding prospects like Gooch and Watmore struggled to make an impact at that level and with contractual negotiations over loan agreements – who pays what percentage – adding to the burden, the opportunities will continue to be increasingly restricted.

Jordan Pickford is perhaps the most striking example of how loan spells can benefit both player and club. Pickford enjoyed a spell at Darlington and Bradford City before last year's half-season spent at Preston North End.

Sunderland monitored his progress carefully during each outing and he was recalled at key points in order to benefit both club and player - first by Gus Poyet from Bradford, and last season by Sam Allardyce from Preston.
Such spells added to Pickford’s growing reputation. His emergence into the Premier League following injury to Vito Mannone and now recognition at senior international level proves just how effective that strategy has been in accelerating his progress.

Still not the finished article, David Moyes has already discussed the physical development that Jordan Pickford requires to complete his route to becoming one of England’s elite goalkeepers. From a supporter’s perspective, such a rapid rise already has a moderately ominous feel to it with the big-boys rumoured to be tracking Jordan’s development.

Regardless, the kicking – either metaphorically or literally - that each of our trio of international youngsters received early in their career looks to have paid dividends. At present, Sunderland have no young players out there on loan, are they missing out?