I can still remember the first time I watched Jack Diamond play for Sunderland, though I can’t remember who it was against. I remember being immediately drawn to him in a way that you don’t often feel when watching U23s football - generally speaking, it’s a sterile environment and most teams don’t have a defined style of play, so it’s hard for some of these youngsters to express themselves on the ball. Jack was different.
He’d collect the ball just inside the final third, look to beat his man with skill and pace, before delivering crosses into the box. It didn’t always come off or work, but as a fan you like to see those types of players. They’re a dying breed - jinky wingers who have the freedom to take defenders on and make them look silly.
I remember commenting on his performance on social media at the time, because it had stood out so much to me. Soon after, an old friend privately replied - someone who had scouted for Sunderland’s academy for many years - to tell me a little more about the 17-year-old player I’d just watched.
He told me that his background as a youngster was almost extensively as a Futsal player, which explained his technique and flair, and that I was right to point this lad out - the academy had high hopes for him. It was nice to have the validation of my own opinion, of course, but since then I’ve kept a close eye on this lad in particular because it seemed fairly evident that he was going to develop into a player worth getting behind.
Fast-forward a few years, and it would appear that Jack is headed down the exact path that many had predicted for him. He was a stand-out player last season in the National League for promoted Harrogate Town, whose manager has declared he’d love to take the winger back ahead of their League Two campaign if Sunderland would allow it.
At the start of August, Diamond scored the final goal in Harrogate’s play-off win at Wembley over ‘big boys’ Notts County with a deft finish across the goalkeeper that was nominated for the club’s ‘goal of the season’ competition. He’s done exactly what you want a young player to do when going out on loan - he’s grown in stature, he’s improved his all-round game, he’s gained significant first team experience, and he’ll undoubtedly return a better player.
Really, Sunderland won’t get a better chance than this season when it comes to blooding young players into the first team squad. We’re hampered in our ability to recruit ‘better’ players because of the EFL salary cap, and the squad still needs to be padded out. Elliot Embleton’s return to fitness will be crucial, but I’d argue that Diamond’s return to the fold will be just as important.
In terms of what we have in wide positions, Diamond offers us something that nobody else does. Whilst Gooch and Maguire are your immediate picks in those positions, we have no real cover or alternatives to speak of.
Jack Diamond gives Phil Parkinson an option from the bench and, if he’s successful, potentially something else to think about when it comes to selecting his strongest team.
I’d still argue that signing a wide player before the transfer window closes is hugely important, but that shouldn’t mean that Diamond can’t have a part to play too.
For me, Sunderland need to give these lads the exposure in the first team that they so desperately need when the moment is right.
We shit the bed with Ethan Robson and he left without any real significant first team football behind him, and that’s sad - for me, he should have become an important player at Sunderland when we dropped into this league. We cannot afford to make the same mistake twice, and that’s why the likes of Jack Diamond and Elliot Embleton now need to be considered as important first team squad members.
Who knows - if our manager puts faith in him and Diamond grasps the opportunity with both hands, he could become Sunderland’s hidden gem next season, and the next in a long line of Academy of Light success stories.