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The Academy of Plight: Inside Sunderland’s self-serving, development-stunting youth system

It may have produced two Jordans worth tens of millions of pounds, but is the Academy of Light really fit for purpose? Sources lift the lid on growing concerns in the football world at how Sunderland is stunting the careers of its youth products.

Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Premier League Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Last week, The Independent ran a glowing feature on Sunderland’s Academy of Light. The editorial piece claimed the Wearside training centre was “helping drive England to the 2018 World Cup” and that its careful development of Pickford and Henderson has meant Sunderland are at the forefront of producing young players for the national team.

But what happens to those not named Jordan, and those who are unlikely to attract fees in the tens of millions to feed the Premier League machine? Is the Sunderland academy really fit for purpose in developing those who will turn out at the Stadium of Light or go on to forge careers elsewhere in the Football League?

Roker Report has learnt of a growing unease from figures in the game about the way in which the club manages the pathways of its younger players and how Sunderland operate the loan system.

Through discussions with various figures and observers close to the club, we felt it’s time to shine a fresh lamp on the Academy of Light.

The Academy of Light

Sources talk of loan moves being blocked for players ready to develop beyond the tepid Under-23 set-up; a self-serving culture which rewards staff for getting results in Premier League 2 above allowing youngsters the chance to flourish at Football League clubs, and individuals risking the wrath of the Sunderland hierarchy by taking their career development into their own hands.

Penny pinching over a few hundred quid?

Michael Ledger is currently impressing down at Hartlepool United after a successful spell at Norwegian outfit Viking Stavanger last season - but he very nearly didn’t make the trip down the A19 because of the Black Cats perceived budget-slashing pettiness.

After pushing for the move to Viking, the 20-year-old was hailed as one of the best defenders operating in the Eliteserien, despite coaches at the Academy of Light being adamant Ledger wasn’t ‘ready’ for football in Norway, at a level which is widely reputed to be comparable with English League Two.

Indeed, Viking were keen to keep hold of the 20-year-old as the Scandinavian season runs through the English summer, but Ledger was summoned back to England to play for Sunderland’s struggling Under-23s before angling for another opportunity out on loan.

And then things got messy again as Hartlepool stepped in to express an interest in the Consett-born defender.

With Sunderland insisting ‘Pools should pay Ledger until the 30th June 2018, the National League club declared they simply couldn’t afford that with their own season only running for 42 weeks, concluding at the end of April, and it seems Hartlepool set themselves to reluctantly pull the plug on the deal.

Livingston v Sunderland - Pre Season Friendly
Michael Ledger playing for Sunderland in pre season
Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Desperate to kick-start his senior career, sources suggest Ledger was prepared to forgo a few weeks wages to engineer that move to Hartlepool, such was the young defender’s eagerness to add National League football to his CV.

His persistence has paid off, with the player making his debut for Craig Harrison’s side in a game against Maidstone United in August. But Ledger had been earmarked to play in ‘Pools two previous games over the bank holiday weekend, but was prevented from doing so due to a ‘paperwork issue’ at Sunderland’s end.

Paperwork or pettiness? It’s not for us to conclude perhaps but the experience certainly had those who follow Hartlepool scratching their heads.

Banished for angling to gain football league experience

The Ledger saga is no new thing either and sources point to this oddly restrictive culture as being one which has increasingly infested the varied reigns of Sunderland managers in recent years.

Observant attenders at Eppleton this season may have noticed the absence of certain former regulars for the Sunderland Under-23 side.

Left-back Tommy Robson has yet to make a competitive appearance after spending part of last term on loan in the League of Ireland with Limerick, and right-back Josh Robson has been missing on numerous occasions. 19-year-old Dan Wright, an England international schoolboy, hasn’t been seen in action for months. Curious omissions surely.

Tommy Robson playing for Limerick last season
Image: Sporting Limerick

We have learnt of certain individuals within the Sunderland squad who have found themselves with two, very strict options - to train alone, or turn out with the Under-18s, effectively banished for refusing miserly pay-offs to leave the club in the summer.

Despite having contract terms to run, the sums offered to move these lads on equated to a couple of months wages at best in some cases, and the deals on the table were worse for others.

Moving on for a little cash proved to be too big a risk to accept for these young lads without an alternative club lined up - those who haven’t even been getting games at Sunderland so they could prove themselves to future employers; simply told they wouldn’t be picked and left to one side.

Yet those snubs come on the back of Sunderland chiefs continually blocking loan offers for the young lads in the system.

Tommy Robson in particular has been left in no-mans-land for some time. Loan bids were received for the young full-back last summer and dismissed as quickly as they arrived.

When an offer from League One side Peterborough United came in, Robson was prevented from leaving because David Moyes had no cover at left-back for Patrick van Aanholt.

But once the Scot had brought Javier Manquillo in on loan - a player who had turned out with some success on the left hand side of defence for Olympique Marseille - an offer from Barnsley seemed just the ticket for the then-21 year old Robson.

Again the proposed move, this time to Oakwell, was blocked by Sunderland. The reason? Because Barnsley had failed to inform the Black Cats they had accepted an offer for defender Alfie Mawson from Swansea – a player Moyes had been eyeing up.

Oxford United v Barnsley - Johnstone's Paint Trophy Final
Sunderland allegedly fell out with Barnsley over a planned swoop for Alfie Mawson

Petty or protective? You decide, but Paul Heckingbottom’s side may well be still firmly off the Black Cats Christmas card list.

And the rest, and the future?

With the Sunderland U23 side joint-bottom of Premier League 2 there’s little immediate prospect of any more youngsters being freed up to gain EFL or National League experience this season.

Observers have been pinpointing forward Andrew Nelson as one who would benefit greatly from a loan spell away from the club, but Academy chiefs continue to reject offers.

Moves to Scottish sides have been blocked, as have opportunities at lower league clubs in the north of England, and it took intervention from a well-known figure in the Sunderland footballing community just to engineer Nelson a short stint at Hartlepool last season.

A lack of planning and no insight into how business decisions affect young lads

One thing is clear throughout all of our discussions with people close to the business end at the Academy of Light - there are no particular plans for any of these young footballers as they approach an age at which they could forge a career in the game, either at Sunderland or beyond.

And there’s more than just a whiff of something else - that whilst there are good people working with these lads within the academy, corporate Sunderland AFC is either oblivious or unaware of the impact that business decisions and the current cold, hard-nosed financial-driven fervour may have on the lives of the young people within its system.

Any notion that the club has a ‘duty of care’ to maximise the career and life chances of these young people appears to have been forgotten as the zealots who inhabit the offices and corridors of SAFC pursue an ever-frantic quest for austerity.

Sunderland v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League
The Stadium of Light
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

A lot of the lads now of an age to think about graduating from the Academy of Light have been in the system since they were 8-years-old. Desperate to perform for their home-town club, many are watching with dismay as fans who previously flocked to the Stadium of Light abandon the city’s team after having their fill of senior players who make little effort to hide their derision of Sunderland AFC other than picking up a pay cheque.

With pressure on coaches mounting to turn out decent Premier League 2 results, that situation is not likely to change. There are suggestions that U23 boss Elliot Dickman is often unaware of the treatment dished out to youngsters from backroom, corporate SAFC, but one man continually earns praise from everyone we’ve spoken to – Kevin Ball.

The club legend and stalwart has often been the sole figure identified in our discussions for his genuine interest in the career development of youngsters within the Academy of Light. As one observer told us – “Kevin Ball wouldn’t care if the U23s were beaten 5-0 every week if it meant the lads were out there getting experience”.

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