While I was watching the recent Champion’s League semi-final between Liverpool and Roma, I did so with an interesting mixture of pride and regret.
The pride came from seeing one of the finest players to emerge from our youth academy playing in a crucial Champions League match, in one of the most incredible and historic sporting arenas that Europe has to offer. The pride continued to swell within me, to know that one of our very own was captaining and leading the charge of a team that is itself drenched in European glory.
On a warm and joyous spring evening, in the northern perimeter of Italy’s fabled capital, a small town lad from the north-eastern outpost of Sunderland was trampling every blade grass at the Stadio Olimpico with power and passion.
My regret was formed from simple origins - that, despite his love of the club and the city, Jordan Henderson was not wearing red and white stripes.
The same sense of immense pride inspires my mackem soul each time I see Jordan Pickford between the posts for England. Again, despite my genuine delight at his prominence and his development, there is an element of sadness that attaches itself to my excitement. He’s not patrolling the box at the Stadium of Light - he’s tragically been replaced by three keepers who between them could not lace his boots or lay a glove on his ability.
These two young men not only encapsulate a nation’s hopes and dreams as we approach the World Cup, but they symbolise elements of Sunderland AFC that are a cause for considered reflection.
They are symbols of a broken past where a befuddled approach to finance and business strategy led to a fire-sale of our most valuable local assets, and these two England stars are emblematic reminders of our crude failure of not being able to provide a platform significant enough to allow the well-nurtured natives of our region to shine on a stage where the club’s ambition and stature matched their own.
For Sunderland fans it is impossible not to wonder what might have been if only we’d been stable and successful enough to hold on to such wonderful examples of talent like Henderson and Pickford.
As nice as that wistful thought may be, in League One, there is nothing to be gained from living in the past. There was, after all, little that Sunderland could do to hold on to those ambitious and determined young men. The prices offered were too high to turn down and, in Pickford’s case, after the gargantuan misery of a relegation we needed the cash just to stay alive.
Besides, for those individuals the club at the time wasn’t led, designed or built for lofty ambition. As an institution, we weren’t big enough or well ran enough to keep such positive, locally sourced talent satisfied.
But the trail blazed by the most spectacular of our recent academy graduates also offers a token of hope - a symbol of localised optimism and a demonstration of what precious gems we have nestled nicely on display in our academy treasure chest.
Last Sunday against Wolves we got a glimpse of just how potentially valuable our youthful jewels may be. They provided enough class, enthusiasm, skill and drive to offer even the most down-hearted Sunderland supporter the chance to smile.
It wasn’t revolutionary, nor was it a performance that prophesied of guaranteed results next term, but it did give us that golden chance to re-invigorate a pessimistic heart that’s been pulled, stretched, battered and bruised in what has been an exceptionally morose and disappointing season.
Add our brave, young swordsmen of the academy to the root and branch changes we are currently witnessing, and we can all be more hopeful of resurrecting our own philosophy.
In real terms, the prospect of being flattened and re-built by ambitious new owners, with a financial grounding laced in the difficulties of lower league football, is a solid foundation from which we can genuinely grow after a pitiful era of overall unhappiness.
I think many supporters, because of those experiences, concur that to some degree at least we lost our identity along the way. We seemed to float from one relegation scrap to another without a solid, well-formulated plan or any well-oiled strategy to change our fortunes or cement our footballing identity. But just as we feel there is no end to our fall from grace, hope springs eternal.
Stewart Donald and his consortium, as well as the parting gift of financial solvency from Ellis Short, have arrived just in time. It suddenly feels we are on the precipice of something different. Perhaps we needed the fall to make our restitution all the sweeter.
As the philosopher wrote:
A Phoenix cannot rise from the ashes, until it burns.
The Academy of Light should and must become a base that is envied by all who cross its bows. Our coastally-based and beautifully crafted training facility cost millions to build and many more to maintain. But, under new ownership and with more focus from the powerbrokers who hold the purse strings, I expect it to be worth every penny in the coming seasons and not just from a performance point of view - but from a soulful perspective.
Watching our young lions last weekend did not answer every question that now floats around in the darker rims of League One, but let’s not just explain it away as a one off, or as Wolves already being on the beach. It must mean more than that.
The days of buying marquee players for many millions are over, but that - for us at least - is a very good thing.
When Southampton were relegated into League One in 2009 and imploding under the pressure of administration, Les Reed (Southampton’s then executive director of football) was optimistic about re-shaping the good work that ultimately created Gareth Bale, Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, realising that the ideology of ‘spend big while you can’ has a devastating shelf life for certain clubs.
His way forward - relying on Southampton’s expensive academy and the recruitment of other young, hungry players - proved a winning formula.
On his academy and a new approach to scouting and recruitment he said:
I think it’s definitely the best kind of investment. One (marquee) player has a shelf life. What happens when he goes? You have to buy another player.
You’re continually spending that kind of money and turning it over on importing players, where the investment here (in the academy and recruitment) could be for the next 50 years.
Instead of buying one player, we produce five players.
The intention for Sunderland now must surely be to replicate this ideology. Looking at Southampton’s fall into League One has scary parallels to our own misfortune, and Reed continued with words that ring true for Sunderland fans too:
We had this great history of young players but at that point everything had been run down. The club was selling off all the prized assets because it was going bankrupt, so it was a matter of taking all our history as a foundation and then building on it so we’re never in that position again.
In theory, Sunderland have left nothing to chance with its academy, especially with a club legend and fabled captain at its helm.
The attention to detail at the training ground is staggering, but in the last number of years due to shameless cost cutting and dreadful club management in general, perhaps the Academy of Light has taken a few unnecessary hits.
Kevin Ball’s dogmatic and protective stewardship of the Academy has kept a significant structure working effectively and just like the man himself - sturdy and immovable. The core of its success remains strong and our reliance upon it has never been stronger.
There is a narrow corridor that leads from the boot-room at the Academy of Light, not far from the perfectly manicured pitches, and there is an unmissable A4 sign that reads ‘Total Professionalism.’
That should be our new philosophy, and its disciples should be the young men that shone so brightly last weekend. The likes of Ethan Robson, Joel Asoro, Josh Maja, Bali Mumba, Elliot Embleton, Denver Hume and Luke Molyneux must provide the core of our solid re-birth - not old dossers, the like of which we’ve signed readily in the past.
If the Academy can be the young and sprightly engine room, then our new recruitment strategy must be as fresh and bold. Our recruitment ideology must interline with our overall philosophy going forward and the two must interlock naturally.
Player profiling must be bespoke to Sunderland and it’s crucial that any incoming players are able to play in our new style - identifying potential new signings must be a collaborative effort, but part of an identifiable and workable system.
Stewart Donald knows this, from his own admitted mistakes when in charge at Eastleigh. He realised you cannot simply throw money at a problem. I’m certain he will use his know-how for the benefit of Sunderland, and base a solid recruitment system that focuses on a whole host of crucial metrics.
We may not have wanted this fall from grace - some of us may hate it, in fact. Some may be so disappointed, angry and betrayed they feel they will never return to the terraces of the Stadium of Light.
But as each day progresses and as the bumpy terrain of League One begins to take shape, for the first time in a long time I can actually see hope from our destruction.
Maybe we needed to be flattened, so Sunderland could be re-built.
And with it is borne an exciting new identity and an intuitive, naturally connected philosophy that is not blown out by passing trends or the devouring breath of a glamourous league, but that can stand the test of time and serve Sunderland for generations to come.