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Opinion: Academy Of Light Production Line Must Be Better Utilised

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Since opening in 2003, Sunderland’s Academy of Light has produced an unquestionably disappointing return in terms of players making the step up to the first team squad, writes James Gutteridge.

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The return has been particularly disappointing given the level of investment the club has poured into the AoL and the number of seemingly promising academy players who have failed to find a first team place at Sunderland. In comparison to clubs like Southampton, who have used their academy as a near constant source of first team players, Sunderland have an exceptionally poor record of promoting players from amongst their youth ranks.

Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule.In recent years players such as Jack ‘Judas’ Colback and Jordan Henderson have managed to work their way into a first team place and have proven themselves to be reliable Premier League performers, both earning moves to other top flight teams where they have since established themselves.

More recently, Jordan Pickford has shown he has the ability to become Sunderland’s first choice goalkeeper and looks likely to usurp Vito Mannone as Sam Allardyce’s goalkeeping choice next season. Duncan Watmore burst on to the scene earlier this season and has been a revelation since being promoted to the first team squad.

Given the success that these former academy players have had questions remain over why Sunderland have been so reticent to take a chance on players from the youth ranks. There has been no shortage of players who have fallen by the wayside - players such as Ryan Noble and Martyn Waghorn were touted for great things at one time but were never really given the opportunity to prove themselves. Neither may have gone on to play at a particularly high level football, but it is hard to know what they might have achieved had they been given sufficient opportunity.

This is typical of Sunderland’s risk-averse attitude to their youth players and has contributed to the lack of real returns from the Academy of Light.

Given Sunderland’s lack of attacking enterprise and creativity this season, it is astonishing that very few of the promising attacking players from our youth system have been given a chance to show their qualities. While there is merit in giving players such as Liam Agnew, George Honeyman and Lynden Gooch a chance to go out on loan and gain experience in senior football – and this certainly benefited Jordan Pickford – there is equally a case to be made for giving these players experience of being in and around the first team squad at Sunderland.

If Sunderland can create a pathway from the successful academy sides to the first team for the multitude of promising youth players currently on their books then there is a real chance to develop the kind of model that has been so successful for Southampton in previous years.

Going forward, this could both provide financial and playing benefit to Sunderland and would show a real benefit to the continued running of the outstanding facilities at the Academy of Light.