Any defeat hurts, and Sunderland AFC’s mauling away at Rotherham United was hurtful and embarrassing in equal measure. However, was it really that much of a surprise, and is it a cause for concern?
After three unsuccessful attempts to escape League One, patience is a word that we Sunderland fans really do not wish to hear in the context of this or any of our team’s development.
It is, however, one word that although we will try hard not to utter we must pay heed to.
The old ways of doing things have gone and they aren’t coming back. Rotherham, Wycombe and Wigan have a way of doing it and we have chosen a new way. Acquiring “the best of League One” to try to achieve promotion has failed for us and we have witnessed what that resulted in – a team not quite good enough to achieve a top two place - each failure leaving an inadequate and dispirited ragtag of a squad not quite ready to go again.
Bloated squads that could not be moved on until the expiry of their contracts. Even if they had achieved the prize of promotion, which they were maybe capable of achieving, then where would we have been? Likely struggling at the wrong end of the Championship and risking all that had been gained, in a cycle which could never be broken.
The new approach to concentrate on young players must be the right way to go. We have some talented players in this group who have their best years ahead of them. However, the young players who we own and the young players who are borrowed have one thing in common. They are learning and when you are learning then you will make mistakes.
That is why results like Saturday, at home to Charlton and at Portsmouth are perhaps inevitable. They will not be the last such defeats that we witness this season. This squad will be done over by more streetwise League One opponents again, but learn they will, and that is what makes this season so interesting and exciting.
Of course, this squad is not just a collection of kids. We have a number of experienced players, old hands at this level like McGeady, Gooch, O’Nien, Flanagan, Evans and Wright.
Flanagan apart, we haven’t had much return from this group as yet this season. But we know they are capable and every other team in this league would want them. It is time for them to step up and provide more. I expect that they will do.
Fifteen games into this season and much has been achieved.
Young players – Neil, Hofmann, Cirkin and Doyle – have been blooded and shone in many games. Given their inexperience they won’t shine every week. That is why players of that age and experience rarely come through as a group. The trick is to manage them, to take them out at the right time and bring them back when they are ready. There are others waiting to step in. We have barely seen Alves and Broadhead – we will do soon, I expect.
Perhaps through necessity or otherwise we have relied far too heavily on these young players in this first third of the season. That doesn’t make the strategy wrong. At this stage last season, we had barely seen Dion Sanderson. He grew into it and others will this season.
One thing that we know about League One is that it is a long old slog.
Our fate won’t be decided on two or three games, it will be decided on 46 matches – we are winning our game in hand away from that top two slot. Teams don’t run away with this division, and we can’t expect to either.
There are areas to address - that is obvious and it is also to be expected. I am sure that those in charge will keep their nerve and stick to what seems to be a well-thought-out plan.
There will be bumps along the road but we need to remain calm and trust the manager and those others in charge as well as this talented group of players. They will learn, they will adjust, and hopefully complete the next two-thirds of the season like we have completed the first third. Do that and we won’t be far away and that is where – with this young talented squad – we probably expect to be.
One thing is certain, however, given their age and talent, this squad will be better in May than they were in August – and that is unlike those who have gone before them.