To the frustration of many fans and in spite of the lack of quality or passion shown by many of Sunderland’s senior players this season, Simon Grayson has so far been reticent to fully place his trust in academy players. While there are obvious exceptions to this, with Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman given opportunities to impress, is Grayson missing a trick by not putting greater faith in the players developed from within the club’s excellent Academy of Light?
With one of the top training and development facilities in the country at their disposal, it feels like Sunderland should be prioritising the emergence of players through the club’s youth system to a significantly greater degree than currently appears to be the case.
Pre-season games appeared promising with Grayson giving 18-year old Josh Maja plenty of game time in addition to appearances from the likes of Gooch and Honeyman. Though Maja’s season has so far been compromised by injury, there was a sense of hope that Sunderland’s strong financial investment in academy football might be finally paying off on a larger scale.
Previous seasons had seen the likes of Jordan Henderson, Jordan Pickford and Jack Colback make the step up to the first team. The trio undoubtedly made their mark on the first team squad and the transfers of Henderson and Pickford for a combined £50m+ seemed to point to the Academy’s viability as a source of income for Sunderland. However, barring those three, few youth players have been given a real chance to impose themselves on the Sunderland squad, either in recent years or this season under Grayson.
While Sunderland continue to struggle under the financial burden of their enormous debt, perhaps more focus needs to be put on promoting Academy talents, both as an option to improve the depth and quality of the first team squad and, perhaps more importantly, as a method of long-term revenue generation. Southampton have pioneered this approach and the dividends this has paid are clear to see, with their club in a position to turn away multi-million pound offers for star players and with a multitude of club youth players making a serious impact on their first team squad over the past four or five years.
This is not to suggest the wholesale introduction of youth players as some have suggested. While there may be something satisfying in the idea of dropping the entire under-performing senior squad in favour of the U23s, there are significant risks in introducing too many youth players to the senior squad at once. Of course the idea of fielding the entire U23s as the first team is a fanciful notion, but there is a genuine concern that the lack of squad depth and quality could force Grayson’s hand and require multiple youth players to make the step up in a short space of time.
Not only does this put extraordinary pressure on developing players to make an impact in a struggling team, but the lack of experienced senior players around them in such a situation is far from ideal.
Sunderland might be best to look to another sport for their inspiration on how to achieve the integration of promising youth players. New Zealand’s national rugby union side, the All Blacks, have provided the perfect model for any side wishing to carefully integrate young players while keeping their development on track. Their coach Steve Hansen has pioneered a model for initially introducing young players to the first team squad atmosphere, before giving them short substitute appearances in low pressure games and eventually feeding them up the chain to starting berths, based on continued performance and measurable development.
While it may be a left-field suggestion, if Sunderland could successfully embrace such a model, we might see the beginnings of a production line of young talent that could both enhance our first team squad and, as was the case with Pickford and Henderson, provide a revenue stream that allows the continued financial investment that is so crucial to the development and retention of talented young footballers.
There is no question that Sunderland have done a solid job of investing financial resources into their youth football programmes, but perhaps now is the time to invest the most valuable resource we have available for young players’ development, first team game time.