The season starts again tomorrow, and we should be looking towards the first match with a degree of excitement. As one pundit recently said, ‘before a ball is kicked, no matter what the club have done previously or during the summer – anything could happen during the coming season’.
It’s an optimistic view of football, but then we are Sunderland fans.
Apart from last season it’s difficult to remember the Black Cats fan base going into a new season with any great optimism for what lies ahead. That in most cases is due to the uncertainty that has dogged the club for so many years. We’ve had false dawns, some dodgy deals and on paper some players with mouth-watering potential – only to fall flat.
The more pessimistic of Sunderland fans will point to the club’s lack of a marquee signing this summer, at least by League One standards. But with the signings brought in so far, is there not a real sense that the clubs long term direction has changed?
The short reason for Sunderland’s free-fall was investment in overpaid, overrated players who didn’t want to play for the club. It happened due to serious mismanagement by a directionless board.
While some fans are still coming to terms with it, other fans deep down recognise the club’s biggest problem – location. Some time ago it was leaked that during Ellis Short’s time on Wearside, his management team were looking into the possibility of building training facilities in the south of England to counter the problem of attracting better players.
Many fans will be disgusted by such a notion, but on paper it isn’t a bad idea in principal. But then, Sunderland fans don’t expect to turn up to the Stadium of Light to watch Messi or Ronaldo score blinders every week or roll around in agony because the North wind has just blown on them.
Most Sunderland fans want players with heart and passion - players that will not only play to a good standard, but are quite literally prepared to fight and die for the red and white stripes.
Okay, that’s a little over the top but you get the picture. Possibly, players like new recruits George Dobson and Jordan Willis, may fit that bill - players with the potential to play at a higher level, who can grow with us as Sunderland hopefully progress through the leagues.
One thing that stood out in the club’s fall from grace was the lack of desire and loyalty much of the expensively assembled squad of players possessed for this football club. The idea of players trained and blooded by Sunderland would bring the hope of instilling those attributes into our own crop of players.
While there are no guarantees in football, everything seems to point towards the Academy being the focus for the club’s rebuild. When Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven speak of ‘the club being self-sustainable’, that is undoubtedly what they mean.
When we are looking for inspiration we look to clubs like Southampton and Bournemouth, now established in the Premier League much of it on the back of their own academy products, one way or another.
Indeed, Southampton’s model is to be envied - following a successful return to the Premier League they sold over £100m of players in one pre-season. Many thought they would be relegated after the loss of so much talent, but they invested wisely and continued to build.
We may not like the idea of being a selling club, but if it returns Sunderland to the heady heights of the Premier League again I’m sure we wouldn’t argue with that - I’d rather Sunderland were sustainable and capable of producing our own prospects on a regular basis over paying inflated wages to average, lazy players just so they’ll move to the North East.
There is no doubting what the Academy of Light is capable of - we just look at the two Jordan’s for inspiration. With that noted, it has brought one of the best manager’s in Europe, Jürgen Klopp, for producing young talent knocking at Sunderland’s door. Sunderland and Liverpool have formed a ‘special friendship’ as a result as Klopp looks to replicate Dortmund’s exciting youth system on Merseyside. Ironically, something Sunderland unsuccessfully tried to do.
So, what does it mean for Sunderland? For our current level we have produced half the team from our academy. Any real prospects seem to be swallowed up from us by the big clubs at the age of 14 – 15. But that is still positive, it is enhancing our reputation in the long run. As we move up the leagues and that reputation of giving youth its chance continues, perhaps the big clubs won’t be such the great prospect after all.
We await the next Henderson or Pickford to break through to make some serious money and turn heads. Sunderland must take small steps, but as long as our future foundation isn’t built on sand we can move forwards and aspire to be a model where exciting youth takes centre stage.
Historically, the club’s location has both defined it and restrained it, certainly where investment and attracting the right players has been concerned.
But it doesn’t have to be terminal to Sunderland’s overall prospects.
We look to the announcement this week that the FA have pledged to invest their largest ever sum on three sports hubs in Sunderland. While we look at the table and focus on the first team, we forget the work and plans that are going on further down the chain. But clearly, the big boys and FA are taking notice. Perhaps the future’s brighter than we think, and the next huge talent will see Sunderland as the best location to make their mark.