The presence of Stewart Donald once more on the Roker Report podcast has injected another dose of optimism into the Sunderland supporters across Wearside and beyond. The owner’s open and frank approach to all things asked of him is highly refreshing.
Yet, I listened to the way he described the majority of our players, and particularly their agents, with a sense of loss and dismay.
There are those who I certainly won’t mourn over when they eventually leave, but there are others who I thought better of. Players who I thought would seize the chance to play for this great club; players who would help to re-energise us under new management; players who have shocked me with a desire to leave and their apparent refusal to play for the club again.
Is it better to force a move in the hope of better pay, only to sit on the bench or play the odd U23 game? Is it not likely that they will find themselves loaned out to a side in this league all-too-soon, in a bid to get their career back on track?
There will be some, of course, who will be OK. But there are too many who have not ‘made it’ yet, despite what they or their agents may think. These lads have worked hard to break into a first team - and not just any first team.
This is Sunderland - a club with a rich history and a potential that has seen Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven, and now Juan Sartori get all giddy and excited about what we could achieve in the future, with some hard-work and determination. This is a club that has attracted a young manager in Jack Ross, that could rise to be one of the best in a generation if his most ardent supporters are to be believed.
Their options are clear: either stick around for the ride, with the clear aim rising back to whence we came, or they can move on to smaller clubs, albeit ones currently better placed in the football pyramid.
I’d wager the majority of our current roster won’t find themselves plying their trade at perceived ‘bigger’ or more-exciting clubs, and that has to give Sunderland a chance when convincing them to stay.
At times like this, I can’t help but think of Ben Alnwick. I know for some, memories are of a young lad who was OK, but nothing special. However, for me he represents what these kids now face.
Alnwick was a lad of immense potential, and was tipped as a future England goalkeeper. He came through the ranks at Sunderland, making his debut against Leicester City aged just 18. He played a short, but key part in winning the Championship, and became a Premier League goalkeeper. He had been a regular at various levels for England, and was emerging on the U21 scene, competing with Joe Hart for the jersey. Roy Keane had already handed him the number one shirt at Sunderland and his career was about to explode.
And, yet, he never realised his full potential. Alnwick recently looked back on his earlier career during an interview with Bolton’s official website:
I was lucky. At the time, I mean, we had a couple of injuries and I got thrust into playing. It was brilliant, you know. You don’t realise, at the time, you’re just a young lad and you play ‘cos you enjoy it every day. You’re just going with the flow, whereas when you get a bit older you’re playing for future contracts and stuff like that.
At that age you don’t think it’ll come to an end but… it was brilliant, my time at Sunderland - I loved it.
I was just getting the number one shirt at Sunderland and I was 19 at the time. I had played a few games in the Championship and a handful in the Premier League and [now] I was playing every week.
Alnwick made twelve appearances for RoyKeane before experiencing a dip in form. Instead of realising this was a result of moving fast and choosing to knuckle down, Alnwick began to think the grass was greener elsewhere.
Keane commented on the situation in November 2006:
Ben has been frustrated at not playing first-team football recently. He has been to see me a few times, so it looks as though he’ll be going on his way.
By January, Spurs had signed him for a fee rising to £1.3m - and Alnwick thought he was making the right decision:
Looking back, I wasn’t exactly setting the world alight, but because I was so young and in the first team, it done me well. At the time, going down there was a dream move.
Damien Comolli saw Alnwick’s potential and tipped him to be the long-term successor to England’s number one, Paul Robinson:
We are very pleased to bring another young and talented prospect to the club. Ben may only be 20 years old but he has significant international and Premiership experience. Ben showed great motivation and desire to join us and I know he is excited to be part of our future.
All seemed rosy, but Alnwick’s dream - having swapped first team football and the chance to learn from one of English football’s great players to start over with Spurs - soon turned sour:
When I went to Tottenham my career became a bit stagnant. I went there and you had Paul Robinson and Radek Černý; like all these keepers who were top drawer. For me I went from playing in the first team every week to playing on a Monday night in the reserves or U21s. When I went to Spurs it was just loan after loan, to be honest. Looking back, I don’t think it was great for us.
Loans at struggling sides Luton Town, Leicester City, Carlisle United, and Norwich City meant Alnwick played for four lower-league teams before he made his debut for Tottenham. That was to come at Burnley, where he conceded four goals in a 4-2 defeat on the final day of the 2009-10 season. The next season saw him loaned out again. Spells with Leeds United, Doncaster Rovers and Leyton Orient followed - and Alnwick never played for Spurs again.
Alnwick wandered around the lower leagues with Barnsley, Charlton, and Orient again, before landing at Peterborough. In the seven years since he’d left his number one spot at Sunderland, Alnwick had played in less than 50 first-team football matches. On many occasions, he would leave through contract terminations. Peterborough was no different until, in August 2016, he signed for Bolton.
Ben Alnwick is, for me, an example of where it can go awry - where one so young can end up losing that thing he has dreamed of and worked so hard for. I’m not saying he’s missed out on a career - he may well be very happy at Bolton - but I have to wonder what might have been.
My fear is there are several players who face a similar crossroads this summer. Do they listen to self-centred agents, turning their back on the club like Alnwick did (and potentially follow his route through football) or do they think again?
I hope, for a few at least, they listen to what Jack Ross is offering and have a change of heart, so their careers may accelerate, rather than stagnate.