“We cannot always build a future for our youth, but we can always build our youth for the future,” is a famous quote by former American President Franklin D. Roosevelt which seems particularly apt given events over the past week at our beloved football club. With Pickford’s £30 million move to Everton confirmed and intense speculation surrounding the possible departure of two more young prospects – Joel Asoro and Benjamin Mbunga-Kimpioka – the future looks somewhat bleak at Sunderland.
Of course, the sale of Pickford was somewhat inevitable – given the brilliant season he had last term – and £30 million is an excellent fee for a player that has played little more than a season at the top level, but for me his departure is tinged with sadness. A sadness that we couldn’t provide a decent future for one of England’s hottest young talents; a sadness that we didn’t get to see more of him in a Sunderland shirt, and a sadness that another academy graduate – a local lad who loves the club – has felt the need to leave in order to further his career.
For the record, I completely understand Pickford’s decision and I wish him all the best for the future. On the face of it, it seems like a good deal for all parties as Pickford has found himself a good Premier League club where he can continue to develop and further his international career, and Everton have acquired a brilliant young goalkeeper who can be their number one for the next 10-15 years. Furthermore, Sunderland have obtained some much needed funds to rebuild their depleted squad if the cash is reinvested, of course.
At this moment in time the future of Sunderland AFC is very much uncertain. Yesterday we learned - directly from the club - of a possible takeover which is hampering our managerial recruitment process and we are yet to make a signing since our relegation from the Premier League was confirmed. Uncertainty also surrounds the futures of Joel Asoro and Benjamin Mbunga-Kimpioka, with the Sunderland Echo reporting that Arsenal are weighing up a £5 million bid for the pair.
Asoro is currently away with Sweden preparing for the Under-21 European Championships, but the 18-year-old striker has not ruled out leaving the club this summer. Speaking about his future whilst on international duty, he said:
It’s not something you can decide now. We will have to see who the new manager is and whether or not they like me. If not, I will have to look for something. I have to develop and can’t just play U23 football all the time.
Given Sunderland’s struggles last season – particularly in the striking department – Asoro’s frustrations are understandable, but now is not the time to sell such a raw young talent. You need to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em, and now is the time to stand firm and hold on to such a prized young prospect. The club was correct to sell Pickford at this current juncture, but they’d be completely wrong to adopt the same approach when it comes to Asoro and Mbunga-Kimpioka.
This neatly brings me back to Roosevelt’s famous quote and what it means within the context of football. Clubs like Sunderland have to accept that they cannot always provide the bright and exciting future that their young players - talented individuals that are full of drive and ambition that want to play at the top level of English football competing for medals and trophies – are looking for, but they can nurture and develop such talents in order to suitably prepare them for the tough challenges that lie ahead.
It is something we have done extremely well in the past with the likes of Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck and Danny Rose. We gave these loanees the opportunity of regular first team football and provided them with the platform they needed to showcase their talents to their parent clubs and the wider footballing world. They arrived as raw, inexperienced youngsters that were eager to learn and develop, but they left as more rounded individuals; young adults that had learnt their craft and proved to their parent clubs that they had what it takes to cut it at the top level of the English game.
We have provided that platform for others, but now we must do it for our own. We must give the likes of Duncan Watmore, Lynden Gooch, George Honeyman and Joel Asoro the opportunities they need in order to flourish. Some will not be up to the required standard and will undoubtedly fall by the wayside, but others will excel and attract interest from the Premier League big boys and, when that happens (and only when that happens) we should sell for a fair price to the highest bidder in order to regenerate and improve the squad. It is a business model that Southampton have adopted perfectly over the past six or seven years, and clubs like Sunderland should be looking to emulate their success.
You didn’t see the Saints selling Gareth Bale, Adam Lallana and Theo Walcott for peanuts before they’d had an opportunity to learn and develop, so why should we sell Asoro to Arsenal at such an early stage in his footballing career? It makes no sense - both from a footballing perspective and a business one. Bale, Lallana and Walcott all mastered their craft in the lower leagues with Southampton before making the big step up, and Asoro should do the same with Sunderland.
He should take a leaf out of Jordan Pickford’s book and not run before he can walk. Pickford’s loan spells at Darlington, Alfreton Town, Burton Albion, Carlisle, Bradford City and Preston North End allowed him to move up the footballing pyramid gradually, giving him the opportunity to develop his game more freely away from the pressures of the English Premier League.
And, with every step up you could see the significant improvements that he had made to his game. In total, he made 116 first team appearances in the lower leagues before making his Premier League debut on 9th January 2016. By then, he was full of confidence and well prepared for the challenges that lay ahead.
Asoro should see what Sunderland has done for the careers of Stewart Downing, Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck and Danny Rose and think that we can do the same for him. Simply put, the club must keep hold of their prized young asset, provide him with the assurances that he needs and watch his value rise considerably. Then and only then should we consider selling because we cannot always build a future for our youth, but we can always build our youth for the future.