I’ve been an interested onlooker over recent days as Sunderland fans on social media dissect the season we’ve just endured, with each of us attempting to work out where things went wrong, and how we can adapt and improve next season.
And away from social media we’ve been absolutely bombarded here at Roker Report with letters from our readers offering a range of opinions on what people think Jack Ross ought to do next season as he attempts to launch an assault on League One, in full knowledge that both results and performances have to be better, or the good will of the support will dissipate quicker than you can say “change the manager”.
Perhaps the most interesting suggestion from supporters - certainly in my view, anyhow - has been regarding the inclusion of youngsters in the manager’s first team plans going forward, with names like Bali Mumba and Benji Kimpioka frequently mentioned as players that fans would like to see be given a chance to play more often when the squad return back from their summer break at the start of July.
Whilst it’s a pertinent argument that certainly holds water, I think it’s important for us to remember one thing when it comes to young players - jumping the gun, mismanagement and bad decisions can quite literally be the difference between whether they make it at Sunderland or not, and as such they have to be handled with immense care, particularly at such a burgeoning age.
Whilst I believe we’ve definitely seen a more proactive approach towards youth development at our club since the new owners arrived, such as replacing the old-school Jimmy Sinclair with the young, forward-thinking Paul Reid as head of the academy, I still don’t think we’re doing enough nor have a clear philosophy on how Sunderland nurture young scholars into players ready to play first-team football.
There’s very much a slap-dash type approach to how we both treat and feature players who have been given first team minutes this season.
Sunderland’s progression in the Checkatrade Trophy has certainly allowed Jack Ross the chance to afford a small handful of our U23s side opportunities to impress in games against half-decent opposition, but when it came down to the nitty-gritty of competitive League One football those chances were few and far between.
And, to a degree, I agree with the approach Ross took. He only gave chances to players he felt were ready, and that’s why we only really saw Denver Hume out of that clutch of promising young players dip in and out of the side throughout the season.
Hume aside, it’s hard to name another youngster given a chance to prove their worth in the high-pressure environment that was Sunderland’s campaign for promotion back to the Championship at the first attempt.
My issue isn’t necessarily with Ross and his use of the pool of talented youngsters that our category one academy has afforded him, but the system that the club has in place to ensure that these players are even ready to play when the time comes for Ross to feature them as part of his first team plans.
We have to have faith in the ability of our youth system to properly nurture our best young players. Despite being a League One club, Sunderland’s academy is one of the most prestigious in the country and has a proven track record of creating talented youngsters.
Jordan Henderson could well be a Champions League winner come this weekend and was developed under the wing of Kevin Ball. Jordan Pickford - the most expensive British goalkeeper in history - was first choice last year for England at the World Cup.
Next season two more graduates, Conor Hourihane and John Egan, will be Premier League footballers. And James Talbot - who was released by the club last year - has just been called up to represent the Republic of Ireland.
The proof is there that this club can produce talented footballers capable of playing at a high level, and that’s something to be proud of. But the one thing that sticks out like a sore thumb when discussing all of those players is that none of them actually play for Sunderland. In the case of Hourihane, Egan and Talbot, they all had to leave the club to get a chance of playing regular football and proving their ability.
My view on how things should work seems fairly straightforward - that there should be a clear progression plan in place for each young player that the club believes has a very good chance of making it in the professional game.
Instead of individually judging each player and their suitability for the loan system to a varying degree, why aren’t we implementing something structured that ensures they have played a certain amount of games for other clubs once they reach a certain age?
At 17 get them out for half a season at a club who play in the National League North. At 18, a season-long loan with a National League side. At 19, a loan with a League Two or low-end Scottish Premiership club. And so on and so on.
It’s easier said than done, of course, but look at it this way - if you are a cash-strapped lower league club and Sunderland are offering you one of their most talented young players for the season for nothing, can you afford not to take them?
As exciting a talent as Bali Mumba is, he’s done absolutely nothing yet in professional football to suggest he should be playing first team football. Benji Kimpioka likewise. These lads are still in their teens, and in my opinion the next step in their development should be in them playing between 30 and 40 games out on loan for a club further down the ladder that can virtually guarantee them minutes on the pitch. That, to me, is infinitely more important than them gaining the odd appearance hear and there off the bench for us.
The U23s side and their results on the pitch are largely irrelevant. The players learn very little from playing against players their own age in a non-competitive environment, and holding them there certainly stunts their development.
Ethan Robson waiting until he’s 22 to go out on loan just isn’t good enough, though the club definitely got it right when they sent Elliot Embleton to Grimsby - an odd occasion where we’ve acted properly and let someone arguably good enough for first team football to go out and learn from playing regularly at a decent level.
Whether Embleton stays with Sunderland or not, next season he’ll be a much better player for having spent time playing week in, week out for The Mariners in League Two.
Next season we surely have to see a similar approach to the one used with Embleton put in place when judging the futures of our better U23s players.
Luke Molyneux spent time playing National League football with both Gateshead and Hartlepool during 2018/19 and did quite well - so, if he’s truly going to make it at some point with Sunderland, the next logical step is for him to go to a League Two side for the season and get another 30 or so games under his belt, right?
Similarly, tricky winger Jack Diamond spent time at National League North play-off losers Spennymoor Town towards the end of last season. He’s one of the most talented players in the current crop of youngsters, so should logically head off and play for a team in the National League who can afford him regular minutes on the pitch.
Bali Mumba is highly thought of, and as a regular in the England setup shouldn’t find it hard to get himself a good move to a club further down the pyramid.
Similarly, Benji Kimpioka is ready to be playing first team football, just not at Sunderland. Farm him out, let him make all his mistakes somewhere else and, hopefully, he’ll return back to the club this time next year a far more well-rounded player than he is right now.
Other clubs - namely Spurs, Watford, Burnley and Celtic - have used Sunderland in this way this season.
It’s the most logical and sensible method to develop any player who shows signs that they may well be good enough to make it in your first team one day, yet I’m not entirely sure that Sunderland have placed enough focus on utilising the loan market to their benefit enough over recent years - that has to change.
Whilst calls for Bali Mumba and Benji Kimpioka to be given first team chances next season are romantic, the truth of the matter is that we need to adopt a clear development plan for young players that sees them gain considerable experience out on loan before becoming first teamers at Sunderland.