Just 1520 people made it along to the game at Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium yesterday evening, with less than 100 of those in the crowd making the trip down from the North East. On the pitch, Doncaster made eight changes to the side that lost at the weekend in the league against Bradford, whilst Sunderland’s ‘youth’ team contained four players that are considered first-teamers.
The benefit of Sunderland’s involvement in the lower-league competition is apparently so that our youngsters can gain experience of playing men’s football in a more physical and intense environment, but I struggle to see how taking part in a game against Doncaster’s reserves in front of a sparse crowd on a Tuesday night is anything other than a glorified friendly.
The priority is quite clearly less about developing our young players, and more about giving minutes on the pitch to first-teamers that aren’t getting a kick for Simon Grayson’s side in the Championship.
We’ve lost in both games that we’ve taken part in so far and we’re now officially out of the competition, with a dead-rubber tie away at Grimsby Town next month all that we have left on the agenda. I have to ask - what was gained from our entry into it?
Seeing that Jack Rodwell was playing out of position at centre half alongside a lad who really should have been loaned out this season made me despair when I read the teamsheet.
If this really was supposed to be an opportunity for our young players to genuinely progress in a competition that should mean something to them, then why are we prioritising the fitness work of the likes of Rodwell, Galloway and Mika over giving game-time to players in our youth set up that would genuinely appreciate the chance to play in a more competitive environment?
Just talking about this leads me on to a wider issue that I have with regards to youth development at Sunderland - if we see that it’s important to give these young lads the experience of playing men’s football, why aren’t more of them out on loan, making their own way in the professional game?
I see little sense in Thomas Robson taking up a spot on the U21s bench when he’s old enough to be out playing somewhere. Andrew Nelson played in the Football League for Hartlepool last season before succumbing to injury - is it really within his best interests being held back playing against players around his own age in the Premier League 2 when we know he can hold his own even at League Two level? And what of Tom Beadling - he spent some time on loan at Bury earlier in the year and did fairly well. Why is he back here? I don’t understand it.
It can only be to make up the numbers, because it doesn’t seem best for his development to be playing U23s football when he could be playing competitively somewhere down the leagues. Maybe that’ll change come January, but I do worry about how often we hold these lads back from taking in loan spells at clubs further down the ladder that can afford them minutes on the pitch in games that count for something.
You really do have to question the reasons behind our participation in the event if we never intended to take it seriously.