The Academy here at Sunderland AFC has always been one of the most highly regarded facilities in the United Kingdom, if not Europe - churning out young prospects like Jordan Pickford and Champions League, England Player of the Year and World Club Cup winner, Jordan Henderson amongst many others.
It was obvious that dropping a division or two would have been detrimental to the ambitions of the club’s academy, with the club’s higher-rated players susceptible to offers from higher-rated clubs - with centre forward Sam Greenwood leaving to go to Arsenal in the Summer of 2018, Luca Stephenson heading to Liverpool, and youngsters like Logan Pye being touted for moves away to clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United.
We now have no less than seven recent academy graduates playing above our current level, with the recently departed Josh Maja at Ligue 1’s Bordeaux and Sheffield United’s John Egan in the Premier League to name two - and these were once players we probably all thought would never have made it into our first team.
This being so, the future of Sunderland has never looked so bleak on paper, where they appear to be finishing bottom of the ‘Professional U23 Development League Division 2’ for the second season in a row.
Having only been relegated to Division 2 by the slightest of margins in the 2016-17 season - the year the first team were relegated from the Premier League - our development side finds itself in ultimate peril under leader Paul Reid and his staff. They currently sit rock bottom of their league, with one point from 15 games, and seemingly on their way to the worst record of any team in the history of this particular competition.
When you factor in that only four years ago we were runners-up in the highest development division, reaching a European final, and looking like we had nothing but superstars in our youth ranks, it’s been quite the slump to end up where we are now.
It’s disheartening to see players like Bali Mumba - who has found himself on the fringes of the first team in recent years - and Benji Kimpioka, another who has been tipped for bigger and better things, finding themselves stagnating in this horrific Under 23’s side.
Statistics from this season so far show that Sunderland are the least reliant club on youth (players under the age of 23) in League One, only using their young for less than 2000 minutes in League games alone. With sides like Rotherham using youth team players for 10000 minutes, it shows that either our development squad aren’t up for it, or we really haven’t prepared these kids for first team football.
All of this is a far cry from the ‘Dortmund Model’ we were all promised in 2018 by Charlie Methven and Stewart Donald, the model best described by our very own James Nickels in this piece, which you can read by clicking the link below.
Having recently been quizzed on the dreadful run of results, Academy Director Paul Reid insisted that the future is bright for the club, with players like Bali Mumba, Denver Hume, Brandon Taylor, Elliot Embleton and Ethan Robson all ‘capable of making the step up’, of which since that time only one of those players have made any kind of impact. Denver Hume has made a significant impact recently and has grown into a very useful left back, bagging his first senior goal for the club last time out at the Stadium of Light against Wycombe.
Another defence of Reid’s is that underneath the ill-fated Under 23’s and Under 18’s teams results, we have three sides in age groups Under 16 that are current national champions - prompting Mr Methven to boast:
So at age groups under under-16, you would argue that Sunderland is the dominant academy in the whole of the country, and that is just fantastic if you think about it.
He continued on with:
So maybe at under-15 level, when our under-15s go and pump Manchester City 4-1 or something like that, they are playing against Man City’s local lads. The under-18s are not playing against Man City’s local lads, they are playing against an all-star select team from all around the world and that’s a very, very different thing.
Which, is fair enough, isn’t it? Only, we don’t go around playing all-star youth sides like Manchester City every week, especially now that we’re in the lower Premier Development League, a league which includes an Aston Villa side that got pummelled in the youth cup 0-4 by Exeter City - who I think we can all agree, aren’t the most renowned youth side in the country - yet have managed one more win than our youth team all season.
In the end, all we can really do is hope that Charlie’s evaluation of the situation was an accurate one and that the youth sides, under the age of 18, are really coming on well.
If they aren’t, then surely it cannot be long until there is a complete overhaul of the youth system and new staff come in to invigorate these young footballers to be capable of playing first team football.