Sunderland-free Saturday’s are never fun. I quickly run out of things to do around the house. I get sick of flicking through the channels on the TV, I’ll walk the dog, tidy the garden, make breakfast... and then by 9am I’m wondering what to do next.
Coronavirus is, of course, not to be messed with and should not be taken lightly, and the decision made by the majority of major sporting organisations across the world to cancel their respective league action until things regarding the pandemic become clearer was the correct one. That said, having bored myself senseless all morning it was incredibly tempting to instead head off and watch some non-league action at my local club South Shields, particularly since they’ve taken promising youngster Bali Mumba on loan, and possess potential Sunderland signing Wouter Verstraaten in their defence.
So off we popped, down to Mariners Park for a few pints and a game of footy. The opponents were FC United of Manchester, second in the table behind South Shields and, backed by a sizeable away following, they were sure to provide the home side with a tough test in an immensely competitive game.
I was hoping to see some maturity from Bali, a player I have real admiration for but unfortunately have not been impressed with for Sunderland’s U23s in the last two seasons. He’s clearly got a lot of ability, but the lack of clarity on what his best position is has clearly hampered him, as has playing in a team who are routinely beaten with ease by other U23s sides in the Premier League 2.
Some Sunderland fans sneered when the news broke that Bali had signed for South Shields, mainly because of the level of football they play at, but I was remaining open-minded - Shields are going to be playing Conference North next season, play good football, and have many players in their squad who are capable of playing at a higher level or who have significant experience of playing in the Football League behind them.
They get good crowds and, above all else, they play some rough, tough teams that will undoubtedly test the mettle of a young player looking to make a good impression in their first real outing in men’s football.
Jordan Hunter, also on loan from Sunderland with the Mariners, has benefitted from the experience having spent the majority of the season with Lee Piction and Graham Fenton. Whilst he wasn’t available to play yesterday, Hunter has been one of the stars of this Shields team this season, and he will have undoubtedly learned a lot from playing alongside former league players like Jon Shaw and Blair Adams.
Bali scored his first goal for South Shields in his first start, last week away at Nantwich, and he started the game again on Saturday, playing as part of an attacking three behind leading scorer Jason Gilchrist. Wearing the number 11 shirt, he lined up on the left of the three, another unusual position for the youngster, but his quick movement and pace along with his ability to find key passes make him a valuable asset, particularly at this level.
For Sunderland, Bali has largely played either right back or holding midfield, and to be honest he feels both out of place and wasted in both positions. Elliot Dickman briefly toyed with Bali as a number ten but, in truth, it’s difficult for these players to grow and develop in the U23s system. Ideally, you want your young players going out and gaining experience on loan.
Wouter Verstraaten is a name Sunderland fans have only recently become familiar with. He turned out a few weeks ago for Sunderland’s U23s at Liverpool as a trialist, and he clearly impressed as it was confirmed this week that he’s in talks to sign a permanent deal.
Verstraaten is a former PSV Eindhoven academy player, but finds himself in the north east after moving here to study at Durham University. He turned out briefly earlier this season for Northern League side Consett before quickly being snapped up by the Mariners, who had clearly recognised that this was a player capable of playing well above the level he currently finds himself at. His performances then earned him a trial at the Academy of Light, and it would appear that the 23-year-old Dutchman will have a decision to make on his footballing future come the end of the season. Right now, though, he finds himself at South Shields, who are undoubtedly benefiting from his presence in the side.
The game kicked off and clearly buoyed by the vociferous, packed crowd, Shields started like a house on fire. They peppered FC United of Manchester with wave after wave of attack, eventually breaking their opponents down in the 21st minute with the first goal of the game.
Verstraaten started slowly and had a couple of hairy moments with the ball at his feet early in the game, but he soon got over it and put in a classic performance alongside former Luton Town man Jon Shaw at the heart of the Shields defence.
Both in terms of appearance and ability he is clearly out of place in a team at this level, and that’s not a slight on South Shields but more an endorsement of this man’s capabilities. Verstraaten adds a lot to this team and is typical Dutch in his playing style - very cultured, very organised and very good with the ball at his feet. Shields manager Lee Picton recently described Verstraaten as a ‘Rolls-Royce’ in a recent interview, and it’s clear to see why.
Like Verstraaten, Bali was able to bounce off the more experienced players around him. Phil Turnbull is a legend of the local non-league scene and, even at his age now, must be an absolute dream to play alongside. I was fortunate to watch Phil a lot when he played for Gateshead, and he’s clearly a player who could and should have played in the Football League. Alongside the classy Robert Briggs, Turnbull is the ideal base for this team and was able to thread balls to the front three of Mumba, Nathan Lowe and another former league player, ex-Carlisle United attacking midfielder Josh Gillies.
Anyone doubting how this loan will benefit Bali really ought to just watch Shields play, and educate themselves on the quality of some of the players he’s playing with.
Moving around the front three and largely playing off the left, Bali was comfortable when cutting inside and dragging defenders away from the overlapping former Sunderland left back Blair Adams, another who has considerable experience in the Football League and is playing a few levels below where a player of his ability ought to be.
Whilst Shields quickly blew away their opponents in the first half, going 3-0 up by half time, Manchester striker Tunde Owolabi was not prepared to give up and managed to net himself three goals of his own in a pulsating second half; a fantastic display of attacking football from two very good, crowd-pleasing sides.
The goal of the game came from Bali’s attacking partner Nathan Lowe, a stunning 30 yard strike that helped give Shields the breathing space they needed to see the game through.
The fact that Shields conceded three goals at the hands (or feet) of Owalabi is no slight on Sunderland trialist Verstraaten or his Shields teammates - this, again, was a player in form doing what he does best, twisting and turning before netting a series of stunning strikes past loanee Blackpool goalkeeper Myles Boney.
Mumba completed the scoring for Shields on the day, netting his second goal for the side since joining. Josh Gillies - arguably the SSFC man of the match - found the 18-year old with a superb cross, and he duly netted to put the game to bed.
So, it was a massive win for Shields who have now put further space between themselves and Manchester in the table. Nobody knows what the future holds and whether games will continue to be played over the coming weeks and months at Mariners Park, but I saw enough to be hopeful that both Mumba and Verstraaten have promising futures in the game.
Above all else, I was absolutely delighted to see the maturity I’d been craving from Mumba. Here, in front of a boisterous crowd who were housed close to the pitch, in a big table-topping game against a decent side, he not only held his own but stood out. Bali - and several other Sunderland youngsters - need these experiences out on loan if they are going to make it here. We can’t hold these lads back and must do everything in our power to ensure they are going out, playing men’s football and proving they have the know how to match their ability. Then, they will come back to Sunderland as better, well-rounded and mature players, better prepared to play for our fantastic club.
If you get a chance which, let’s be honest, might not be likely, get yourself down to Mariners Park and cheer these lads on this season. It’s a great day out, you can stand close to the pitch with a beer and you get to watch some potential Sunderland stars of the future play some good football in an environment that will help them to grow as individuals.