After tucking a penalty away with consummate ease on Wednesday evening, Lynden Gooch sprinted over to the travelling Newcastle fans, kissed his badge and celebrated with a passion and fervor rarely seen on the Stadium of Light’s turf this campaign.
In fact, to a man Sunderland’s young charges played with an incessant energy and desire to succeed - a marked contrast to the exploits of those currently representing our club’s most senior side.
And as I watched the game, I couldn’t help but feel a burning sense of frustration. I’m not suggesting these young lads could have turned our season around, but the manner in which we neglect to prepare them for first-team football is simply criminal and needs to be highlighted.
The news of Ethan Robson’s new deal is certainly something to be cheerful about, In fact, most would agree that Sunderland have incredible facilities and a fairly productive youth academy. Jordan Henderson, Jordan Pickford, Jack Colback (spits) are obvious names synonymous with relative success, but the likes of Martyn Waghorn, Conor Hourihane and John Egan are but a handful of youth products that have found footballing success elsewhere since graduating from the Academy of Light.
After considering the fact that Waghorn, Hourihane and Egan have all found success away from the club, the impending exits of Michael Ledger and Josh Robson alongside the departures of Rees Greenwood, Tommy Robson and many others are concerning, to say the least.
Of course, it’s impossible to say whether any young footballer has the talent required in order succeed in senior football, but the issue with Sunderland is the fact that we don’t do enough to thoroughly assess players and afford them opportunities to prove themselves in the men’s game and ultimately this decision will continue to haunt us.
The decisions to allow youth players to leave the club without affording them the chance to prove themselves in senior football simply beggars belief. As a club we’ve surely known for quite some time that we’re on the proverbial precipice; subsequently, efforts should have been made as soon as possible to give as much senior experience to youngsters as possible in the form of loans away from the club. Best case scenario: we have better developed players with senior experience ready to play in either League One or the Championship; worst case scenario: these young lads might attract attention and a deal away from the club for a small fee.
Instead, however, the club have focused on trying to make the under-23 side successful in the PL2 competition. You can understand why the club would want their youth side to succeed, but when you consider the bigger picture and the perilous position in which the club finds itself, then it’s difficult to agree with the choice of focus.
I would argue that upon relegation, Sunderland should have looked to give as many of their young charges an opportunity in men’s football as possible instead of focusing on the success of the U23’s, and subsequently, because the club hasn’t done that, we might just find our summer woes exacerbated.
Tom Robson is a prime example - or indeed victim - of the club’s unwillingness to expose youth products to men’s football. A brief spell in Ireland last season saw him cope well with the physicality of senior football, but in reality Sunderland should have found the left-back an opportunity to gain experience long before then, instead of finding a last minute deal to a relatively poor league.
After making his debut under Sam Allardyce, Robson was relatively abandoned by the club with a free move to Falkirk in the Scottish Championship offering a chance to reignite a stalling career. Subsequently, Robson has done well for the Bairns and several SPL sides are reported to be interested in securing his services should Falkirk fail to tie the young defender down on a long-term deal.
Ultimately, Sunderland have lost a solid player with no financial recompense. Would Robson have made a difference this season? Perhaps not. Would he have been a useful squad player? Maybe. Would he have been valuable ahead of a likely plunge into League One next season? Almost certainly after his recent showings. Yet Sunderland have lost him and a host of others for nothing in return - and it’s maddening.
This season we have relied on a handful of permanent signings and a host of young loanees brought into the club with the remit of stabilizing our position while we try to rid ourselves of crippling debts and an inflated wage bill. I think it’s fair to say that as of right now those brought into the club haven’t been successful.
Have the likes of Ty Browning, Brendan Galloway, Ashley Fletcher, Ovie Ejaria, Jake Clarke-Salter, Lee Camp, and Jonny Williams made a genuine difference as loan players? No - though it’s perhaps a little early to judge January’s acquisitions.
In turn, many are left wondering why these ineffectual players have been preferred over our own youth products. Say what you want about the quality of Ethan Robson, George Honeyman, Josh Maja, Lynden Gooch and Joel Asoro, but these young lads have given their all for the shirt. Could you say the same of those loaned into this club?
The likes of Tom Beadling, Michael Ledger and Josh Robson might not be the club’s most gifted players, but they would most certainly have given their all for the badge - something we’ve lacked at times this season. Some would argue we should protect players from the type of situation we currently inhabit, yet would they fare any worse? Probably not, and fans would likely be more understanding of their struggles.
Ultimately, Sunderland’s approach to developing youth players has been incredibly disappointing and will likely hurt us going into what looks to be yet another turbulent summer. We stand to lose a host of players capable of at least padding out our squad should we go down whilst receiving little to no compensation in return - that borders on sheer incompetency.
Had we given these young players a chance to find their feet earlier in their careers, then perhaps we would be more certain of their abilities and what they could offer the club going forward. Ultimately, however, our approach to finding our youth prospects loan moves elsewhere has been nothing short of disastrous in recent years, and has hurt the club and indeed those affected by it.
It is increasingly likely that we will find ourselves in League One next season, the third tier of English football. It is also increasingly likely that this summer will see a mass exodus of players from our first-team. Had we nurtured our young talent efficiently, then perhaps we’d have a solid nucleus going into next season’s campaign. Unfortunately, our approach to helping young prospects find their feet has been as efficient as our attempts at stabilizing this rapidly sinking ship.