I can’t have been the only Sunderland fan surprised to see Lynden Gooch’s name on the team sheet for the first game of the season last Saturday. I’ll freely admit I follow very little of what goes on within the club’s youth ranks, so my only exposure to Gooch up to that point consisted of a substitute appearance against Exeter in the early rounds of last season’s League Cup, alongside an unashamed admiration for his parents’ bold choice of name.
Against Exeter his entrance, coupled with that of Duncan Watmore, had conspired to transform a tedious and irritating evening into something far more pleasurable, yet that was the last I had seen of him. Watmore has gone on to stake his claim as the least fringey of Sunderland’s fringe players, albeit without ever doing quite enough to guarantee his place on the team sheet. Yet we had seen no more of Gooch in red and white until his surprise Premier League debut last Saturday afternoon.
And you know what? He acquitted himself pretty well. For a twenty year old kid to come into what was always going to be a backs to the wall type game and play as he did, positively and with purpose, with a desire to get on the ball and go forwards, is pretty impressive. But, in the Premier League as it is, it is very rare for young players to get a chance unless their manager has no choice but to pick them.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we don’t need to sign players. Obviously we do. A conservative estimate might put us four first team signings from being competitive this season, and that is before one considers the thinness of the squad as a whole. Injuries to Cattermole and Larsson, the departure of Bridcutt and Gomez, concerns over Kirchhoff and the continued failure of M’Vila to materialise all conspire to leave us with a squad for which threadbare would be a massive step forward. And that’s just midfield.
But, this early in the season, I’m always drawn to look for the positives. Yes, we are horrendously thin on the ground. Yes, we’re only one injury away from having to throw untested youngsters into the fiery crucible of the Premier League. Yet sometimes, when a manager’s hand is forced, the result can be something really special.
For Sunderland fans of a certain generation, nothing is more guaranteed to inspire wistful nostalgia than the words "Arnott, Elliott, Rowell". There’s no feeling in football which quite matches the excitement when a young player gets his chance and takes it. Now, I’m not saying that if Lionel Messi turned up on Seaburn beach tomorrow with Neymar and Dani Alves in tow that I’d be complaining, but until that point I’m curious to see what Messrs Gooch, Pickford, Robson, Robson, Honeyman and Asoro (amongst others, I’m sure) have to offer. You never know, there might be a player in there already.