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OPINION: Sunderland’s youngsters are not here to fill a shirt - they’re here to build a legacy

The more we can inspire our academy novices to develop into legends, the more we can inspire our sons and daughters to keep the sporting traditions of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents alive. That will provide sustainability not just to the club, but to the city, to our homes, to our dreams.

Sunderland AFC

When it comes to describing the youth of today, the social media-led outrage machine usually paints a picture of two camps.

You have the Time magazine mob, who describe millennials as “the me, me me generation. A crop of young people who are entitled, narcissistic and lazy.”

On the flip side of the coin, “millennials are more aware of societies challenges than any previous generation and are essential in making positive changes.” argues Economics whizz Michael Porter and other like-minded souls.

Whatever your social and cultural view point on today’s millennial generation, when it comes to Sunderland AFC the protection and preservation of our tender young lambs is not just a social requirement to engender positive feelings of inclusivity and acceptance. It’s far more gargantuan than that - it’s an essential pre-requisite to forming the rock-solid foundation upon which the next fifty years of the club may be built.

The fate of our young players is very much both personal and business.

No Sunderland supporter could have watched England’s recent bold adventure in the World Cup without the hybrid emotions of both immense pride, tinged with sad regret.

Sweden v England: Quarter Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images

The pride came from seeing two of the finest players to emerge from our youth academy playing in a World Cup semi-final, in what was the dizzying climax of an almost orgasmic tournament for English football fans. Baked in sun, absorbed by hope and kept alive by an inexhaustible supply of fizzy fluids, the whole nation held their breath while two of Sunderland’s finest barked and bruised, covering every blade of grass and performing feats of flexibility that Olympic divers would be proud to reproduce in the heat of competition.

My tinge of sad regret is formed from simple origins - that, despite their love of the club, the city and the region, Jordan Henderson and his acrobatic colleague Jordan Pickford are no longer wearing red and white stripes.

These two young men not only encapsulated a nation’s hopes and desires as we dared to dream the impossible this summer, but they symbolise elements of Sunderland football club that are a cause for considered reflection.

Sunderland v Fulham - Premier League Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

Both Jordans are tokens of a broken past. They’re emblematic reminders of our crude failure of being unable 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 matched the determined desire of the players themselves.

But the trail blazed by the most spectacular of our recent academy graduates also offers a sign of hope - an emblem of localised optimism and a demonstration of what other precious gems we have nestled nicely on display in our academy treasure chest.

On Saturday against Charlton we received another glimpse of just how potentially valuable our youthful jewels may be. They provided enough class, enthusiasm, skill and drive to offer all Sunderland supporters the chance to smile. Even the most bitter and pessimistic must have grinned momentarily.

And before the message board brigade throw poisonous rocks from the comfort of their keyboards - I’m not getting carried away by one win. I’m not about to make any pompous predictions about promotions based on the opening game of the season. The performance was not revolutionary, nor was it a display that would completely soften the hearts of our most embittered fans...

Sunderland AFC

BUT... It did give us a slither of joy. A slice of happiness. An opportunity to revive our flattened footballing hearts that have been battered and beaten beyond all recognition for a number of depressing years.

For more seasons than we can recall now, we have been praying and begging for a root and branch reversal to our disastrous approach to professional football sustainability. We’ve cried to the heavens for a fresh approach, an end to the boom and bust mentality and a closure of the distressing cycle of joyless relegation campaigns.

The brave, young swordsmen of the academy who filled our squad last Saturday are a pivotal and imperative part of that root and branch change we’ve all been desperate to see and be a part of. Their role in the squad while essential for practical week-to-week reasons is so much more important than filling a shirt or even passing a ball.

They’re a symbol of renewed hope. Hope of a successful season, hope for an identifiable footballing philosophy and hope of a future restored. A future cemented by an academy whose very business, is keeping us in business.

Oxford Mail

Part-owner of the club, Charlie Methven expressed the financial desires of his partnership with Stewart Donald from the very genesis of their ownership:

The plan is to make Sunderland ‘fully self-sustainable’ after an initial period of investment and restructuring.

Fully self-sustainable? Sunderland fans may associate that phrase with the words on the back of a packet of Viagra, but certainly not with our football club. Yet how wonderful is to hear? How satisfying is to know there is an actual economic goal that forms the business strategy of our owners?

Part of the cycle of that sustainability must include the productivity of an academy that produced England’s No.1 and England’s vice-captain.

So, to see Bali Mumba, Josh Maja, Elliot Embleton, Ethen Robson, Luke Molyneux, Honeyman and Hume all pushing for places - and in some cases captaining and nailing places down as their own - is simply heart-warming to see. I know we’re in League One and I know they’ve not proved a thing just yet, so don’t bombard me with accusations of delusions and foolishness. I’m well-aware of the reality.

Sunderland AFC

But Maja grabbed himself a goal and that should be celebrated... and Mumba - this lad, with the appropriate nurturing and support, is going to be special. Its difficult to believe he’s only 16. Last season, when he made his debut, Chris Coleman joked that Mumba was over the moon to play as it got him out of double biology.

As an educator by trade, I can tell you that most teenage lads are addicted to playing Fortnite and are obsessed with squeezing spots. To witness a young man emerge from the gloom and put aside the ghosts of our past few seasons to play with an innocent abandon was gleefully pleasurable to watch.

Yes. He made mistakes. Yes. He was not perfect. Yes. At times he was pushed around. But he was also mature, self-assured and committed.

He’s 16. Wow.

Sunderland AFC

Equally as pleasing was the crowd’s supportive reaction to our youthful avengers. When mistakes were made, no boo could be heard, only howls of encouragement and reassurance were present.

That my friends is the standard for these, our naive young warriors. They can be easily crushed by the weight of burdensome blame and WE - every bit as much as our young players and our new owners - must maintain our part in this root and branch transformation towards a brighter dawn.

As the uneven terrain of League One begins to take shape, for the first time in a long time I can actually see a light at the end of our darkened tunnel of desolation.

Maybe we needed to be flattened, so Sunderland could be re-built.

And with it is forged an exciting new identity and an intuitive, naturally connected philosophy that is not blown out by passing trends but that can stand the test of time and serve Sunderland for generations to come.

The support witnessed for our younger, inexperienced and most sensitive players seen last weekend is a marker, for a bold and refreshing new approach to support. You, know…. support.

Sunderland fans in my mind are epically blessed with humour, patience and fortitude. We can make this the most incredible place for a young person to fulfill their footballing dreams. For those on the pitch and for those like my lad, sitting in the stands.

The cycle of young lions filling the stadium of light to secure our future is not restricted to playing staff alone. The more we can inspire our academy novices to develop into legends, the more we can inspire our sons and daughters to keep the sporting traditions of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents alive. That will provide sustainability not just to the club, but to the city, to our homes, to our dreams.

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