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Hourihane & Egan: proof that our youth development needs to be embraced rather than neglected

On March 28th 2017 Conor Hourihane and John Egan made their respective debuts for Ireland in a 1-0 friendly defeat to Iceland. Both started their careers at Sunderland and left at a young age, and both will line-up against Sunderland in this coming campaign. So what went wrong?

Chelsea v Brentford - The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

After several weeks in which both chief football officer Simon Wilson and chief scout Tommy Doherty have left the club, serious questions are emerging with regard to the club’s transfer and youth-development policies.

While the likes of Martyn Waghorn, Jack Colback, Jordan Henderson, and Jordan Pickford have certainly made the grade in recent years, many more potential talents have seemingly fell by the wayside and left the club.

Several of those players have gone on to make a name for themselves, and none more so than Conor Hourihane and John Egan, two former prospects who will face their former club this season for Aston Villa and Brentford respectively. But why did they leave, and what are we missing out on?

Conor Hourihane

Signed by Roy Keane in the summer of 2007-08 Conor Hourihane was a sought after talent. It was suggested that 16-year-old Hourihane was going to develop into a fine player. However, Sunderland struggled to nurture his talent into anything substantial, eventually seeing Hourihane leave for Ipswich in the summer of 2009.

I was on trial with Sunderland for a week, and I instantly got a feel for the place. There was a very homely atmosphere, more so than at the other clubs.

Now admittedly Hourihane has made it clear throughout his career that Roy Keane was a large factor in his early career decisions, so much so that when the club did offer Hourihane a contract at the end of the 2008-09 season the Irishman was instead lured by Roy Keane to his next destination. But would Hourihane have been tempted to stay if he was given a chance to really showcase his talents?

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - FA Youth Cup
Conor Hourihane in 2008 playing for Sunderland under 18s
Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Hourihane stumbled through his early career, and after being released from Ipswich after one season soon found his feet at Plymouth Argyle earning plaudits for his creativity and goal scoring.

After three seasons in League Two, Hourihane earned a move to League One Barnsley where he truly found his feet as a player. Still only 23 years old, Hourihane was blossoming into the player which Sunderland thought they were getting when they signed him in 2007. Hourihane continued to excel at Barnsley and was crucial in their rise to the Championship from League One.

Barnsley v Millwall - Sky Bet League One Play Off Final
Hourihane celebrating promotion with Barnsley in the League 1 play off final
Photo by Matthew Ashton/Getty Images

After establishing himself as a productive Championship player, Hourihane found himself involved in rumours suggesting he was to move away from Oakwell during the January of 2017. Gossip was rife - including suggestions his former club, Sunderland, were keen - however, Hourihane eventually moved to Aston Villa for a fee of around £3 million pounds, and Steve Bruce was quick to sing his praises:

He’s a good footballer and now he has to have the belief that he can come and play on the stage like this, which we have given him. That’s the next step for him.

He’s played 18 months in the Championship to a very good level. He has a great left foot. He can make a pass. He can score a goal. He has all the credentials.

Hourihane has since made his international debut, but Sunderland though are surely the guilty party in failing to nurture Hourihane’s talents. Admittedly he refused a new contract, but - like several other players after him - why was he allowed to run down his deal if we thought so highly of him?

If the club had provided time for him to develop at a lower-level, and afforded him a loan move for first-team football then maybe we could have seen a return on the player we valued so highly, instead of allowing him to leave for a nominal compensation fee.

Aston Villa v Bristol City - Sky Bet Championship
Celebrating his first goal as a Villain
Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Consider the amount of poor midfield players Sunderland have had since Hourihane was at the club; we could surely have given a player with talents like his a chance to flourish, rather than throwing him on the scrapheap in his formative days as a footballer?

The club is now paying for its shortsightedness because Hourihane is quickly showing that he is an elite Championship player who may yet still play Premier League football. With a bit of time and effort, maybe he could have been displaying those talents at Sunderland.

John Egan

I was frozen out. There was no interaction with the manager and I found that very different.

The above quote summarises exactly what seems to be wrong with the Sunderland development system. Why does an academy product like John Egan feel like he was frozen out by the manager? Poor from the club.

Ultimately though it looks like Egan could be the kind of player that Sunderland could do with this season, especially since we lack numbers in our defensive department.

Egan himself began his Sunderland career in a promising fashion. He had a few different loan spells at Crystal Palace, Southend, Sheffield United and Bradford where he seemed to fit in okay. He even scored this goal:

Martin O'Neill brought him onto the Sunderland pre-season tour in 2012-13 where he seemed to impress and he was even presented with a squad number for the rest of the campaign. However during his loan spell at Bradford he suffered a crushing leg break that really seemed to derail any chances of him ever making the Sunderland first team. The club then confirmed his place on the scrapheap at the end of the 2013-14 season where he had numerous suitors in the Championship and League one.

Egan eventually ended up at Gillingham on a two-year deal where he excelled. He earned Player of the year in the 2014-15 season and in 2015-16 he was named in the PFA League One team of the season.

Egan then joined Brentford on a free transfer in the summer of 2016, where he again has developed, proving himself to be a solid Championship defender. He has even managed to find himself on the scoresheet numerous times for Brentford, 4 goals last season in 34 league games. A firm favourite of both the Brentford fans and indeed his manager, Dean Smith, who has lavished praise on Egan:

I watched him a lot when he was at Sunderland and when he went out on loan. He is a proper centre back and has a hunger to keep the ball out of the net. He is a good defender and a good footballer as well. He is also a leader and we want to keep adding leaders to the squad.

Egan, like Hourihane is again an example of a player Sunderland allowed to slip away. Clearly he displayed potential during his spell at Sunderland, but we continually as a club allow our younger players to grow stale in our academy system rather than trying them in our first team squad or finding them short-term first-team football elsewhere. If you look at the dross we have endured in defence during the last 5 years, can we really say that Egan would have been any worse?

Brentford v Fulham - Sky Bet Championship
Egan is showing himself to be more than competent at the Championship level
Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images

The club’s mentality regarding its youth prospects seems to be that they should not be afforded first-team opportunities until they can show they are completely ready. Yet, at the same time, we have seemingly allowed a plethora of more experienced players from other clubs and cultures to slot into our team when they were clearly not ready too. The constant changes in direction and management made it nearly impossible for these young players to truly show their capabilities, with new managers generally wanting to trust more experienced players who were brought into the club and then consequently binned when the next manager took the job.

So can we really say that Egan and Hourihane were let down by Sunderland? I think we can.

If we look at the manner in which these players - among others - have been discarded by the club then we can see that the club does not take its academy entirely seriously. Yes you can argue that the likes of Henderson and Pickford made the grade, but those are top international players we’re talking about, and were sold for over £50 million in total. Egan and Hourihane are both good players, but simply weren’t given the chance to prove their worth. I’m not saying they’re of a similar quality, but surely the club regrets letting Egan and Hourihane go with hindsight?

Just look at the dross we’ve bought over the last decade and tell me that Egan and Hourihane wouldn’t have been better than the vast majority of them. At worst the duo would have been good squad players to have had for the last few years, and at best they’d have developed into players who could have staked a claim for a starting berth, or have been sold for a handsome profit.

Perhaps some time away from the pressure of the Premier League will enable the club an opportunity to use some of the talent found within. Hopefully, the club use this period of transition to look within and abandon this reckless system of buy high, sell low. Conor Hourihane and John Egan are perfect examples of why we have to give players the chance to impress.

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