One name stood out among the five-man list of players released by Sunderland; Ethan Robson.
There are still so many unknowns with Robson. He’s 23 and has less than 40 league appearances to his name and only nine on Wearside.
Yet there’s still a sense that Robson has untapped potential and was a player that could and should have been featured more often in our League One campaigns.
There’s a strong argument he’s the best tackler we’ve had at this level, he has the speed to reach and make challenges, that an effective, but past his prime Lee Cattermole simply couldn’t get to.
He enjoyed a golden month at Grimsby Town. Admittedly playing in the division below, Robson looked like a left-footed League Two Frank Lampard scoring three goals and laying on another one in five games in September 2019.
His two goals at Exeter were particularly eye-opening. Robson curled in a beauty from 20 yards from a short corner, and then sealed a 3-1 win for Town by showing the composure to faint past a defender and then pass into the top corner with his weaker right foot.
Once again, it’s worth stating this was in League Two and Robson clearly wasn’t doing this every week, otherwise he’d be a top Championship player and not on the released list for a League One squad. But that ability to go box-to-box and score goals from midfield is something Sunderland haven’t possessed over the past two seasons.
A Curious Case
The predominant reason Robson’s career has stalled, and he hasn’t established himself at the professional level, as he approaches his athletic prime, are injuries.
Most notably, Robson suffered a serious ankle problem in the Checkatrade Trophy against Carlisle United. Earlier in the matchup he’d scored a game-sealing brilliant half-volley. Robson couldn’t have picked a better time to smash in a technically perfect strike.
Max Power was suspended and Dylan McGeouch had struggled for form early in his Sunderland career, leaving an obvious vacancy for Robson to fill next to Lee Cattermole in the Sunderland midfield.
He wasn’t fit and wouldn’t feature for Sunderland again all season barring a 14-minute cameo against the Manchester City Under 21s in the Checkatrade Trophy. He was sent out on loan in January to a struggling Dundee side in the Scottish Premiership.
Similarly, Ross spoke up Robson’s chances of being involved at the start of our first season in League One, but a thigh injury opened the door for a then 16-year-old Bali Mumba to start in his place. By the time Robson was fit, McGeouch had also recovered from injury, plus Cattermole who was expected to leave the club had returned to the first team picture and Max Power had been signed.
Beyond the injuries, Robson is a curious case as there always seems to have been a disconnect between what we saw of Robson on the pitch and the way he was discussed off it. I lost count of the amount of times on the Roker Rapport podcast in the 2018-19 season someone mentioned how much Ross rated Robson.
The press and others connected to the club were adamant our Scottish gaffer saw a big future for a player who saw less League One game time than Mumba and Benji Kimpioka. On the rare occasions Robson was fit and at Sunderland he always seemed to be way down Ross’ pecking order, regardless of what was said behind closed doors and to the press.
In the 2018-19 season, Sunderland’s midfield typically included two of Cattermole, McGeouch and Power with captain George Honeyman playing ahead of them. When one of those four wasn’t available typically Honeyman would play deeper with Chris Maguire being used more centrally. Ross even toyed with playing Honeyman and Lynden Gooch in midfield in front of a deep lying Power to mixed success.
Grant Leadbitter’s signing further complicated things and our homegrown returning starlet instantly found minutes in the first team.
Robson and Mumba, despite his ridiculously impressive two starts for Sunderland against Charlton Athletic and Luton Town, seemed to be the young players Ross never really trusted or desired to make first team regulars. Both spent a majority of the season on the fringes, which makes sense in Mumba’s case given that he’s tiny and had just finished his GCSEs. Robson less so. He was 22 and had played well at times for Sunderland in the Championship, this was his moment to break through and it never happened.
After back-to-back relegations, as fans we rightly thought academy players may get more chances than they had done during the short-term grind of ten Premier League seasons. Without every point counting, and each decision at every level having to be focused on avoiding relegation and keeping that sweet television money, the club ought to have more freedom to promote youth.
We had (and still somehow have at the time of writing) a category one academy. Youngsters signed up with the intention of hopefully one day becoming Premier League players could now force their way into a League One team. In 2018 it happened spectacularly for Josh Maja, Honeyman, a homegrown success story became captain, and Gooch finally became a first team regular after finishing the Championship season strongly. Robson is only a year younger than Gooch and should have been set for a breakout year as well.
As much as our owners enjoyed speaking of a ‘Dortmund model’ on their arrival and talked up the facilities and academy they had at their disposal, we know that player development wasn’t and shouldn’t have been their priority.
Ultimately when you’re trying to win promotion young players’ development can sometimes be sacrificed in favour of the greater good of achieving promotion. Young players going on to succeed and develop elsewhere is fine as long as those players that blocked their pathway are performing to a high level.
That’s where it gets tricky assessing the Sunderland midfield, we’ve failed in our main objective twice and still find ourselves in League One. But to what extent you consider our midfield are to blame will vary from fan to fan.
Has Power lived up to his billing as a former League One champion who has previously excelled at this level? At times. Is George Dobson a better younger version of Robson who will achieve more in his career? That’s impossible to answer, but Dobson has proved far more durable and is much more experienced than Robson.
The Ones Who Got Away
Watching former youth teamers Conor Hourihane and John Egan surpass Sunderland in the past few seasons has been frustrating - both would have improved our current teams for the past four years. But in both cases, it’s easy to see why they struggled to breakthrough after they outgrew the Academy of Light.
Hourihane’s final year at the club coincided with the season we signed Lorik Cana and Lee Cattermole, we also had another teenager going by the name of Jordan Henderson eating up minutes in central midfield.
So as much as I’d loved ten years of watching Hourihane and his wand of a left foot, I can understand why he didn’t catch Steve Bruce’s eye and had to find minutes elsewhere.
Egan could have more gripes with the way he was treated by the club. He became somewhat of an afterthought after he broke his leg on loan at Bradford City, and was ignored in favour of new shiny mediocre players when the club transitioned to a Director of Football model. He was released in 2014 having most recently played in League Two for Southend United.
It’s unclear whether history will repeat itself with Robson and it’s unfair to compare him to bona fide Premier League quality talent, but an obsession with short-termism has cost the club before and might have done again in this instance.
Beyond mitigating factors like injuries, the club’s priorities and just pure bad luck, Robson should cop to some culpability too. For all the flashes of talent we saw and occasional technically perfect goal he buried for Grimsby, the 23-year-old rarely looked like a can’t miss talent. Even in Checkatrade Trophy games he was guilty of playing too many safe passes and not capitalising on every chance he got. I distinctly remember that in his one start in preseason in 2019, Robson was terrible; he couldn’t string a pass together and was outplayed by the less experienced second half substitute Ruben Sammut.
The final major factor to consider with Robson is was he a victim of apathy and lack of attention provided to youth development at Sunderland at the end of the Short era.
Honeyman was never loaned out to a Football League club and had to wait until he was 23 to become a first team regular. Gooch did get loaned out to League One Doncaster when he was 20, but then played a miserly 362 minutes in the Premier League the next season instead of gaining further experience elsewhere on loan.
Robson’s first loan move was when he was 22 after he’d played for the first team in the Championship, asking further questions as to whether Sunderland could have done more to progress his development earlier.
Robson’s Sunderland career can maybe be explained away simply as a talented prospect who just couldn’t stay fit. But beyond that explanation are signs of a club still being undone by the disease of short-termism.
A sense of ‘what if’ that still hangs over Robson’s time here, and it highlights the negligence shown towards the young players who would and should ideally be spearheading this great club’s revival.
Robson’s Sunderland career has ended in a whimper, but the question remains - can the club learn from his circumstances and, just this once, correct their mistakes when a similar situation arises in the future?