When Sunderland’s starting eleven was announced on social media ahead of last night’s game with Everton, myself and many others will have peered at it through our fingers, groaning as we noted the fact that three right backs made up part of our back four.
Welshman Adam Matthews was out of position on the left, Billy Jones - stood at a colossal 5”11 - was tasked with handling Dominic-Calvert Lewin through the middle alongside Lamine Kone, and then at right back was Donald Love.
Quite what the thinking behind playing the trio was still isn’t apparent to me, and in truth it raises a number of concerns that I’ve had for some time now about the way that Sunderland develop young players - in particular, defenders.
With Thomas Robson, Sam Brotherton - a full New Zealand international - and Thomas Beadling waiting in the wings, Simon Grayson elected not to give much-needed game time and experience to any of those men, instead opting to play people out of position - thus, proving that the manager has very little faith in the young defenders at his disposal.
Robson spent a decent spell out on loan last season, played a full ninety minutes for Sam Allardyce in the Premier League and is of a good age, whilst Beadling had a somewhat successful stint with League One side Bury and is very much ready to be playing regular first team football. Whilst neither player has anywhere near the experience we’d like them to have at this stage in their development, it would be fair to say that the prospect of playing in a cup game for the club they’ve been at their entire lives would be a relatively small highlight so far in their short professional careers.
That’s not to say that any of the trio would have changed the outcome of the game, or that at this present moment they are good enough for first team football - it’s more the fact that, with many injuries to key defenders to deal with, Grayson didn’t feel confident in placing any of those players in the positions that they feel comfortable playing in.
This feeling of disappointment that I had was compounded further having seen all three of Everton’s goals from last night - Jones, Love and Matthews all played their part in each, making the decision to shoe-horn particularly Matthews and Jones into unfamiliar positions all the more baffling. It’s fair to say that the youngsters couldn’t have really done any worse than their senior counterparts.
If you can’t give a young player their chance in a fairly meaningless cup game, when you have a minor defensive injury crisis, up against a striker from their own age group that they’ve likely faced on countless occasions over the years (Dominic Calvert-Lewin is aged just 20), then when can you?
I get the argument that they simply may not be good enough, but you have to concede that our manager has been quite happy to continually give hapless Everton-loanee Brendan Galloway chance after chance in our first team this season, despite the fact he’s not even our player.
We’ll happily aid the development of someone else’s defender - continually giving them opportunities despite them making costly mistakes on an almost weekly basis - but we won’t even play our own centre half or a left back in a cup game, lads that have been waiting years for their chance to play and impress? That just doesn’t sit right with me.
If I was Tom Robson or Tom Beadling I’d be trying my level best to get as far away from Sunderland as possible as soon as they can. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the place to be at if you are a young defender - unless, of course, you belong to a Premier League club... then we’ll give you plenty of chances.
In truth, it’s a relatively minor gripe. We’ll have forgotten all about this result in a few weeks, such is the frantic nature of Championship football. But the wider issue we have at Sunderland - not giving opportunities to young defenders when the chance is there for them to showcase their abilities - really does concern me, as it has done for many years.