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Make Your Case: Should Sunderland use more of the kids or persist with the experienced players?

Kids or Veterans - how should Sunderland line up at the weekend and see the season out? Vote in the poll below the article.

Sunderland AFC

Mark Carrick - “It’s time to move on”

There’s always the argument that you throw the kids in and you run the risk of breaking them. I remember a young right back who was handed his debut against Manchester United at Roker Park on January 12th, 1991. Paul Williams was his name and Lee Sharpe tore him to shreds throughout the first half. Denis Smith took him off, saying he could have made the change after just 15 minutes, such was Williams’ torment. Those 45 minutes were the only minutes the youngster would ever play for Sunderland.

However, I do think Williams was an exception, rather than the rule. Sunderland have seen numerous youngsters make the grade. Dickie Ord, Gary Owers and Gordon Armstrong are just three names from the same era to have had long careers in a Sunderland shirt.

Peter Reid famously turned to youth, just as Denis Smith had. Both managers faced a similar scenario to Chris Coleman: how to rebuild from one of the lowest points in the club’s history. But rebuild they both did, as the youngsters grew through experience.

We have some talented youngsters; ‘highly-rated’ is often the description used. Granted, one or two are away on loan and may - or may not - be part of the side next season, but we also have some right on our doorstep.

When you consider the names that regularly appear on the teamsheet, and especially those we discuss on social media, isn’t it time to make a change? Didn’t Coleman even say the same thing - that something needs to change? How many chances do the senior pros get before they make way for youth?

Hibernian v Sunderland - Pre Season Friendly
Highly Rated Players Such As Elliot Embleton Will Be Our Future - Why Not Our Present?
Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Isn’t it time we take a look at Max Stryjek - can he be any worse than Camp/Ruiter/Steele? Should we put Ethan Robson ahead of Cattermole, regardless of the make-up of the team around him?

We don’t have to change wholesale, but can we not offer the likes of Elliot Embleton, Luke Molyneux, Owen Gamble and Benjamin Kimpioka a fast-track route to the first team? We could easily add them to the match-day squad, around the likes of Adam Matthews, Bryan Oviedo, Aiden McGeady and Jonny Williams, to help their development and progress into the starting XI.

We have already seen the emergence of George Honeyman, Joel Asoro and Josh Maja this season.

Honeyman has been an ever-present in and around the matchday squad and plays with a passion for the club. Maja was the standout performer during pre-season and but for an injury he may have made greater in-roads this season. Asoro has been our shining light in the last few weeks.

They are proof that, when trusted, nurtured and offered opportunities, the experience of playing regular first team football allows them to blossom.

If we are to rebuild, we need these lads to grow up quickly and the only way they can do that is through experience. I accept mistakes will be made and inconsistent performances will be witnessed, but these will only be eradicated by regular and persistent selection.

We, the fans, need to be patient, but why not simply give them their heads now? The worst that can happen is they’ll be far more experienced for a League One campaign next season. The best? We still have games left for them to influence a great escape.

Damian Brown - “We can’t twist, we have to stick”

It’s true that one day you just have to take a chance. Many great footballers have been discovered in their late teens, and I’m sure the managers and coaches that gave them their chance are forever-pleased with themselves for having the cahones to make that choice. But it’s easy to point at our senior squad and say ‘Well, how can they be any worse?’ - the truth is that they can be.

You have to first ask yourself a few questions about the players we consider to be “the future” of the club.

Firstly: do we have that level of ability on the books? In the development players, do we find the wedding of raw talent and skill earned through focus and sacrifice? We’ve heard good things and the more hardcore among us will have attended enough of the U23 matches to make a fairly reasonable assessment, but let’s be honest with each other here: this isn’t Barcelona B. While some of the young gentlemen we’re discussing are indeed very promising, they’ve got a long way to go. Youthful exuberance will only get you so far, and when all is said and done you have to make it the rest of the way off the back of your own hard work and ability. They should all be commended for their hard work, but their ability hasn’t rocketed them to early fame and fortune. Personally, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Birmingham City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship
George Honeyman has established himself as a first team regular having graduated our academy
Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

The second thing to consider, for me, is how will these kids adjust to the tactics under Coleman? Will they just “get it”? While some of them have been present for selection, and available for training and to just be generally evaluated by the backroom staff, how much of the intended identity do they have?

One of the manager’s chief priorities is undoubtedly the identity of the team; their psychological mindset; their adherence to whatever tenets he has laid down, and that is a fragile thing. Wholesale changes to the playing squad with the heavy involvement of fringe players – lads that have been occupied with their own campaign – could be devastating. To effectively bring up an academy product; to protect them and their best interests, they have to be assimilated into the squad.

Any coach that cares one whit about the development of those lads knows this has to be a slow, careful process that absolutely cannot be rushed except in the most extreme circumstances. Something to remember on this point, also, is that the physical presence of some of these lads is the only thing inhibiting them, and that’s something no one can do anything about.

This in itself isn’t a hindrance – there are plenty of small yet great players in world football – but in the lower tiers of the English leagues? As soft as the game has become, this is still one of the most physically challenging leagues in the country and your average League One enforcer might not think twice about going through the young trickster that’s megged him. If we want to have a team of talented players that are developing to become real future squad players, we have to make sure they don’t get their legs broken before they’ve finished 90 minutes with the big boys.

PA Images via Getty Images

Another albeit small concern for me is the reaction of the young players to our imminent relegation. Granted, some will be relishing the opportunity (and that’s what it will be for many of them, considering most of our current senior players will depart for pastures new and we won’t have any money to bring in anyone half-decent to replace them) but what about the likes of Joel Asoro?

While he’s hardly pulling up trees at the moment he’s a man of clear potential. His stint in the senior squad was born of a lack of options, but do we really believe that others aren’t keeping one eye on this pacey young international as the club spirals down the abyss?

What if we brought up some others that we intended to keep for inevitable relegation, and they out-perform their counterparts? A Championship club comes in for them and offers them the chance of first team football on better wages in an atmosphere that isn’t as toxic as Sunderland AFC? How long before heads are turned? This is a cut-throat business and I’ve no doubt the likes of Kevin Ball – one of the few remaining diamonds in this ruff – are wringing their hands and hoping that no one comes in with an offer that neither the player nor the Bain the Headsman want to turn down.

In the end though there’s one very important reason we shouldn’t dilute the squad; we already have a team of battle-hardened veterans ready to fight this war for us. I know, I laughed at that too. It’s getting harder and harder to put a positive spin on old legs and slow heads, but the truth is that to dismiss what we already have on the books as simply not good enough isn’t doing the players themselves justice, and it plays into the hands of people like Ellis Short who would have you believe he’s just a victim that’s been tricked by all these nasty bullies that are out to get his money.

The players, for the most part, are bang-average. We have two or three real talents in the first team, we have two or three real talents on the treatment table, but we only really have one or two awful players. The last three games have taught me something we all already knew: our defence is agonisingly poor, at times bordering on ethereal. I’m sure there’s some kind of black magic involved in keeping the ectoplasm of John O’Shea tied to this plane of existence just enough to give the illusion of corporeality, but whatever dark rite we’ve got going on in the plant room on a match day to keep that link open is unreliable at best. Presumably Short buys his sorcery in the same Pound Shop he buys his CEO’s.

But the point is that our issues on the pitch come from a very specific place and it isn’t “everywhere”. We’ve got some good players and we’ve got a manager that’s coaxing effort and attacking threat from them; something two predecessors failed to accomplish.

Is it perfect? No. It’s not even good enough in my eyes, not to survive in this league. But is that the failure of the entire team? For me, the problem is a few key players that have become untouchable. They’ve endeared themselves to the club through seniority and a bit of charisma, and that dressing room/pitch pecking order is a relic of a by-gone era.

To put it simply – team selection should be a meritocracy, whereby only the best, most prepared and most talented are chosen to play. For too long this has been a gerontocracy, where the senior players tenure isn’t questioned because they’ve become part of the furniture.

But it’s too late now to make a change and pray it comes off unaccountably. There’s no real chance of twisting and winning safety, there’s only the slow, ugly grind that comes from building a fighting force out of a rag-tag group of misfits. The gaffer has been working 25 hours a day with this squad to get them up to scratch, and he’d be foolish to abandon his system now. We’re in the eye of the storm now, and there’s no point changing direction.


How should Sunderland line up?

This poll is closed

  • 78%
    Play the kids
    (140 votes)
  • 21%
    Stick with experience
    (39 votes)
179 votes total Vote Now

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