The main piece of newsworthy information to come out of the Roker Report’s exclusive chat with Sunderland AFC owner Steward Donald last month was his intention to freeze Benji Kimpioka out of the first-team picture until he signed a new deal.
This was spun in the main as our owner getting tough with want-away players and putting the priorities of the club first ahead of young footballers more concerned with their wage packet than the institution they represent.
It was also explained by Donald as an attempt to never repeat the situation we saw in January, where academy graduate Josh Maja was also out-of-contract in the summer, meaning the club had little to no leverage in trying to convince a top-level young prospect to stay when he was fielding more lucrative contract offers from clubs playing at a much higher level than League One.
Ultimately the club chose to sell the 20-year-old rather than risk losing a highly sought-after asset for nothing in the summer - a decision that has came under major scrutiny given Will Grigg’s inconsistent form and fitness problems. The 27-year-old was signed as a marquee like-for-like replacement for the 20-year-old and has come up way short of Maja’s outstanding goalscoring ratio.
What I struggle to understand is why the ‘Maja situation’ has been perceived as a negative. On this site and across social media, debates have raged as to whether or not the sale of Maja cost the club automatic promotion, such was unique his impact on the first-team.
Why as Sunderland fans would we want our club to stop offering chances to talented youngsters who can have a dramatic impact on our short-term future?
Without Maja’s goals are we sure Jack Ross would still be in a job? Without Maja’s impact would Sunderland have made a surprisingly quick start to life in League One after a summer of upheaval? Would this Sunderland team have comfortably reached the play-offs with Jerome Sinclair and Charlie Wyke as the club’s senior options up-front for four months?
Maja’s impact on the team was massive - he scored in the first four league fixtures this season, easing the pressure on a football club that had endured an unprecedented transitional period in the summer and were expecting a tough awakening in a new, more physical division.
Although it became overshadowed by Lynden Gooch’s glorious stoppage-time winner, it was Maja who opened Sunderland’s accounts for the season scoring brilliantly to settle nerves against Charlton Athletic.
Maja scored in Sunderland’s first four league matches at a time when the Black Cats were trying to find their feet in an alien division without their future player of the year, Aiden McGeady.
Maja scored in three of his four appearances against top six sides, leading to two wins for the Mackems and a further two draws. The Wearsiders won just two of six games against the other top six teams in Maja’s absence - although Sunderland tasted defeat just once against fellow top-six squads without Bordeaux’s new striker.
It’s also hard to pin Sunderland’s loss at Fratton Park on Maja’s absence. Jack Ross believing a washed Glenn Loovens was better than Alim Ozturk ruined Sunderland’s chances.
It would also be unfair to suggest that in Donald’s chat with our very own Alex McCain that the Sunderland boss was intimating that he in any way regretted playing Maja or making him available to Ross for selection.
We have no idea whether Kimpioka is as good as our former teenage sensation. The Swedish forward looked great as an impact substitute in the Checkatrade Trophy and has provided a spark of the bench in limited minutes in League One action.
Whether Kimpioka is ready for more responsibility and minutes in Sunderland’s most important games is unclear. There’s also little evidence to suggest the 19-year-old has won the trust of Ross to play in big games and produce as a starter for a highly ambitious football club.
The point is this is a young player that the club have under contract who has shown flashes of genuine potential in sparse opportunities. Why should the club be looking to limit the positive impact he can have in his time here?
One of the most interesting talking points to come out of the engrossing first Roker Rapport Podcast with Charlie Methven and Donald was the idea of bringing a ‘Dortmund model’ to Sunderland.
Dortmund are of course one of football’s leaders when it comes to both developing and spotting the best young talent in world football. It’s hard to imagine the German organisation threatening their youngsters by removing them indefinitely from the first-team picture.
When the homegrown superstar of their Champions League final reaching team, Mario Gotze, left for their major rivals Bayern Munich on a free, it didn’t deter the club from giving first-team opportunities to Christian Pulisic and Julian Wiegl and a host of other top prospects.
To succeed in modern football, clubs need to have a humility and understanding of where they stand in football’s food chain. All football clubs are selling clubs in one way or another. The days of one-club players is over, and maximising the contribution of your most talented players before they receive a Godfather offer to play elsewhere is vital.
Donald mentioned he’d get “strung-up” if Kimpioka, whose contract expires in 2020, was to repeat Maja’s scoring boom next year and leave in January. But surely that situation is preferable to never playing Kimpioka and then watching the Swedish striker light-up a men’s division of similar quality when his contract runs out.
Donald linking fan and media reaction to the process behind his decision-making is also concerning. Arguably the biggest error Ellis Short ever made as Sunderland owner was keeping Paolo Di Canio in charge of the first team after his initial seven game spell as manager, where the 50-year-old saved the club from relegation in 2013.
The Italian’s volatile personality and lack of tactical acumen was never likely to work in the long-term. The own-goal of keeping the argumentative Italian as the figurehead of the football team was all the more galling, given the major transition the club underwent at the same time.
Bringing in a Director of Football and restructuring the club whilst keeping Di Canio as head coach doomed the strategy from the start. A Director of Football structure can’t work without everyone pulling in the same direction and keeping one of the most stubborn men in football in place, whilst modernising recruitment started the shortermist cycle that ultimately killed any footballing ambition that might have once existed during Short’s era.
It’s impossible to say where Sunderland would be had Short trusted his instincts and binned off Di Canio in the summer of 2013, but the point is the American’s inability to do the right thing due to a fear of the fan reaction started a cycle of failure Sunderland have only recently escaped.
In that context it’s concerning to see our owner show similar traits of wanting to be liked and play to the gallery rather than making cold, smart footballing decisions that will benefit everyone in the long run.
It also opens a slightly bizarre can of worms. Our owner is using the loan market and yet disregarding his own young players at the same time. When Jimmy Dunne, Lewis Morgan and Kazaiah Sterling arrived in January there was an understanding that these guys were here for the short term.
All three were presented as top-level prospects at clubs playing at a higher level than Sunderland, or in Celtic’s case, a club that have that opportunity through qualification for European competition. So, if Donald is willing to borrow and develop other club’s prospects why won’t he show the same courtesy to players he’s actually paying yearly wages to?
This may prove a moot point given that Ross stated he would never let the Sunderland owner tell him who could and couldn’t play in his first team squad.
Donald and Ross would argue academy players are a separate case to players signed by the club that are already established in the game. Maja played first team football for about a year here. He struggled badly for six months in the Championship and before flourishing. In theory a player could spend ten years learning in an elite academy system under Sunderland’s jurisdiction only to leave within months of joining the first-team.
So, whilst I understand the emotional and financial toll that seeing academy players jump ship at the first moment could have on an owner, creating a culture and environment that rewards young talent seems like a beneficial philosophy to me - one that’s in line with an ethos the owners said they would strive for just a year ago.
Let’s not rewrite history and pretend that Maja’s time at Sunderland was a negative for the club and hamstring the club’s immediate future, by putting ego above the collective good of the football team.
The ‘Maja situation’ shouldn’t be used as a form of shorthand for mismanagement and mistakes of the club’s past, it should be used as a badge of honour - that Sunderland football club is still a club that can develop young talent and sell them for a profit and replicate that system. That’s the Dortmund model.
So, let’s embrace any emerging talents that come through our academy rather than throwing them under the bus at the first opportunity. Sunderland fans have endured many devastating lows in the past decade, the ‘Maja situation’ wasn’t one of them.