We need to talk about Jordan Pickford. From his sensational ascension to blockbuster departure, it has been to the surprise of no one that our developmental goalkeeper became the high-fee warranting player he is today. We knew it would happen. We knew a long time ago.
We also need to talk about Fabio Borini. His culminated decline into crestfallen heroism sees the Italian departing the club under a misery of disconnect with supporters he otherwise belonged with.
In terms of recruitment, the return of Fabio Borini has been one of misjudgement and desperation. The other however, of Jordan Pickford, serves as what should be an example of thoughtful and credible recruitment to come; recruitment that brings development and local scouting to the forefront in the most progressive way.
It is time to adjust our enrollment stratagem at Sunderland AFC into something all-the-more simplistic; where the skewering sight of crippling monetary symbols is removed, and our club recognises that our greatest asset must be accentuated. Namely, our academy.
It is time to bring about a unique scale of opportunity that reaches across the region; one that allows the young support to do more than just attend matches; one that brings the community in, devotes time and effort into the training and growth of local youth talent, and prepares them for the challenge of competitive ventures.
To sell our home-nurtured goal-keeper for a record transfer fee should be the beginning of something more. To have a current captain of the national team no longer be captain of our own club is not a future this club should strive for. We have an academy here that simmers with potential and needs only that added attentiveness to truly become renowned.
What we are talking about here is a genuine youth movement that transcends beyond just producing a couple of half-decent players, but instead fans the flames on a better future for the club: an identity that means more than ‘playing style’.
We are Sunderland: our people, our community, our values; our identity is our club, in our streets, in our school yards; in the dreams and desires of the children here, still naïve enough to look beyond poor performances every week, and still say: “I want to play for my club one day”.
That is the player we need.
In no way unprecedented, yet rarely explored, it is a movement rooted in accessible scouting, and heavily reliant on a mutual local trust nearing counter-culturalism to the state of modern football.
Is there risk? Absolutely. It’s a methodology that requires significant patience. It would clamp limitations on our scouting network. In theory, it could even halt our club’s want for immediate financial gain in favour of nurturing long-term achievements. Worse still, we aren’t even getting into the pay-off, because there isn’t one.
This is not a wave of change that culminates in selling a squad of Jordan Pickfords one day. And when you think about it, selling that one Jordan Pickford was a scenario Sunderland should never have allowed itself to succumb to.
Should it not be the shared vision of all supporters to see the day that our club never needs to sell its best players anymore? Better yet, should we not all enjoy that day when our own players – revered and talented – choose to stay because they want to out of loyalty? Out of a sincere connection to our club from a very young age, no less?
“As if!” shouts the ardent RTG denialist. But this is not fantasy. It’s happening right now: at C.D. Guadalajara in Mexico, at Athletic Bilbao in Spain; the latter of which has held this youth-orientated ideology since the Old Testament, and their never-relegated record in a thousand years (thereabouts) is an achievement we can never brag about. And that’s just the start.
The commodity that Bilbao gets so expertly right (and Sunderland gets so painfully wrong)? Recruitment. For Bilbao, it’s all in-house and Basque-based.
Take, for example, their club’s sort-of-triumph in coming runners-up to Athletic Madrid in the 2012 Europa League Final. Of the fourteen Bilbao players to play that night, eleven joined the club aged twenty or under, six joined aged twelve or under; nine were under twenty-four years old at the time of the fixture, and four of those fourteen players remain at the club today.
Why is this important? The aftermath. Bilbao lost 3-0 that night, and their reaction told the story of a team of supporters – not players – actual supporters of the club; inconsolable, in tears, and pushed to their limits. They were a young team that matched Madrid in everything but experience. But they were also a young team that matured and turned up three years later to smack FC Barcelona 5-1 in the 2015 Spanish Super Cup (they did that with a squad of twenty academy players too!).
Of course, we are a long way from that, but we are not far from reclaiming that connection between supporter and player; not when they can be one and the same. For too long, our club has been sold on a bill of goods in dud imports with no gravitas for our supporters to believe in. So we jeer those players when times are hard (and we do – you know we do).
But a kid – a young lad, a supporter of the club brought through the academy and developed into something more, who you know wants to win for you - would you honestly taunt that player if a squad like him loses but still tries his utmost for the badge above his heart?
That is the connection we don’t have. That is the movement we need.
And it should hardly be a tough notion to sell to the club. After all, we’re broke! Why should Sunderland AFC fork out millions – on any player! – who already has his head turned on the next club, when we can invest that money in the development of an excellent local alternative?
Clearly, we did not need to pay over £30 million for Ederson from SL Benfica when we already had Jordan Pickford on our roster. Is it that unfathomable to believe this is possible across an entire squad? This is not an exclusionary club for the locals for the sake of being just that, this is a call for recognition: the talent is already here, it is around us, and it is far less costly.
Nor should it be difficult for such a strategy to be implemented. All the former talk of Jordan Pickford not being altogether ready for the Premier League was naught but weapon’s grade bullshit. He was ready long before David Moyes thought so. The same can be said for anybody. Talent is talent - it’s the effort that goes into training that makes the difference.
It is that commitment to development that made players like current Bilbao winger, Iker Muniain, so remarkable to watch from an early age. As a teenager, he was a visual delight on the pitch, and knew how to work because he was trained to work smart.
Over in Basque Country, the line between youth and senior is non-existent. Their youth team is as good as their first team because they compete together in order to get those kids ready for the highest levels of competition at an early age - and to stub out any ridiculous argument about a twenty-two year old not being ready.
How many twenty-two year olds have we had on our books that we’ve heard were “not ready”?
I am a believer that the strength of heart outweighs the strength of talent. It’s visceral. And that is something our club is sorely missing - only momentarily shining through every so many years with another gem of talent that is then quickly sold on for profit.
And therein is the problem – and the solution – to our recruitment. It is not a coincidence that two of our better players in the last six years have been local club supporters. These are the committed players who buy into our club, yet we sell them on, to buy the non-committal players for our club. Just think about that.
If this club truly is in our blood, maybe it is time to let our blood run into the club again.