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The Pickford Model: Why Sunderland’s new owners must focus on properly developing young players

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Change is well underway at Sunderland Association Football Club, and it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the youth system will be one of the many aspects of the club set for reform. But how could Stewart Donald and co. better organise our youth setup in order to unlock its potential?

Coventry City v Carlisle Utd - Sky Bet League One Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images

The season just gone has been a disaster on two Sunderland fronts. Obviously, the first team plummeted to the third tier for just the second time in the club’s history, but lesser known is the fact that our U23s side also endured a relegation - and will play in the second division of the youth team pyramid when they resume next season.

It’s obviously bad enough that we’ve just seen the senior players fail miserably, but knowing that the youth side is enduring the same fate is just a real kick in the nads - the notion of our academy perpetually bearing fruit is one of the few comforting thoughts we have had during this grim time, so hearing that its prospects are now in a second-rate division gives us yet another thing to grumble about.

But we need not get too worked up. Change is well underway at Sunderland Association Football Club, and it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the youth system will be one of the many aspects of the club set for reform.

But how should Stewart Donald and co. go about organize a better youth setup? And how will that factor into how we move forward?

Well, first of all, we shouldn’t even be slightly concerned with which division of the reserve league pyramid the U23s play in. In fact, we should actively discourage all interest in Sunderland’s Premier League 2 Division 2 campaign (as if that name isn’t incentive enough) and instead focus on getting the young lads loan spells at fully-fledged, first team sides.

Last year, Roker Report was informed of the self-serving nature of our youth system. It was revealed that there was pressure on coaches to attain results in the Premier League 2, and so a considerable number of academy lads were blocked from going out on loan so that the coaches in question could achieve the results they needed for their own job security.

Tottenham Hotspur v Sunderland - Premier League 2 Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

But, despite the fact that the youth products are still getting game time in the reserve league system, it’s rather obvious that that standard lacks the significance of first-team football, and thus cannot provide a young lad with the vital experience he’ll need if/when he steps up to senior level.

Kevin Ball wouldn’t care if the U23s were beaten 5-0 every week if it meant the lads were out there getting experience.

- Our observer, speaking to Roker Report in the aforementioned article.

Loan moves are absolutely crucial - they’ll ensure that the Sunderland players of tomorrow will have the necessary maturity to step up to the plate. They’re much better off learning for themselves what it’s like to play through a season of senior football than playing out a bunch of relatively meaningless fixtures in the second tier of ‘reserve league’ football. A young lad will develop a lot more as a footballer through a League Two promotion push than he ever would by beating Derby and Leicester’s U23 sides.

I suggest that a progression of loan moves should be a process that is set in stone for young lads from the age of (of around seventeen/eighteen onward) - and we should look to the career trajectory of Jordan Pickford for inspiration.

Pickford started building up a reputable plethora of experience from the age of seventeen - he started for non-league Darlington 1883 in 2012; by 2014 he was turning out for then-League One side Carlisle United; give it two more seasons and he was a fan favourite for Championship outfit Preston North End, before finally making his senior debut for Sunderland when we recalled him in the January of that season.

Preston North End v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images

No doubt Pickford will attribute much of his success at Sunderland and Everton to what he learned while making his way up through the divisions with each loan move he was granted, and so we should ensure that all prospective first-teamers on the verge of their eighteenth birthdays have a similar string of loans ascending the divisions to look forward to.

Not only will this allow these young lads to gain that aforementioned vital experience, it’ll also give them a clear view of the road to the first team. If we were to make the Pickford-model of career trajectory uniform across all academy players, then each and every one will understand that they’ll start off at a non-league side, progress a division year on year, and eventually - hopefully - break into the first team once they’ve competed at the division directly below the one we’re in, as well as many others below it.

If Donald can ensure all of that is in place, then we stand a much better chance of bringing many more home-grown talents into the senior side. These are just a handful of ideas and notions, but I dare say they paint a picture of a better regime than the one currently in place.