If I asked, say, 1000 Sunderland fans what they felt the club’s best assets were, what do you reckon the top three replies would be?
The Stadium, of course. It’s impressive, it’s huge, and when it’s full, it’s noisy.
The fanbase. We stand out a bit at this level because we have so many supporters. We broke the third-tier record for a home crowd when we played Bradford in our first season at this level, with over 46,000 packed into the stadium to support the team. Everyone in the country knows that Sunderland have lots and lots of fans.
Then, there’s the Academy of Light - a state-of-the-art facility that houses the club’s category one academy. It exists to nurture and produce top-class footballers that we can eventually play in our senior side and, if they’re good enough, sell on for a huge profit, money that can be used to invest in the next crop of talented hopefuls.
At least, that’s how it should work.
Sadly, for such a long time now Sunderland’s academy has merely existed. We know it’s there, and everyone talks about how it should theoretically function, but the players who somehow fall through the gaps and make their way into the first team setup have been few and far between since the Academy of Light opened its doors in 2003.
Two of England’s best current players were brought through at the Academy, and for that we should be proud. But those two aside, it’s difficult to pick out too many others that you’d consider successes for the football club.
Why that has been the case is the fault of many people, and for many reasons.
On Monday evening, the entire entourage of Sunderland owners, directors and senior officials stood together at Selhurst Park to watch on as our reenergised U23s side took on Crystal Palace in the PL2 Play-Off Final. And whilst we ultimately lost out, because of one missed spot-kick, there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic having seen a number of fantastic performances, in particular from the likes of Anthony Patterson and Oli Younger.
Fans at home watched on via streams too, and were impressed by what they saw.
Ultimately, until right now there has been nobody at the top of the club fully invested in basing the club around the academy, and investing real money in a structure that will ultimately deliver us top-class players and top-class coaches.
Since the new majority owner and Sporting Director came in, we’ve heard more and more about their plans for the future of the academy.
These are of course just promises, and the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, but so far the signs are good from Kyril Louis-Dreyfus. He’s done what I’ve long wished for, and brought proper people in to do a proper job of running the place.
Long term, I think this stands our academy - and the players that will ultimately progress through it - in very good stead.
But what about the here and now? Well, we have a clutch of promising hopefuls on the brink of making it as first-team players, but we know little of the plan for their eventual success.
If I was being particularly critical, I’d suggest that one of the failings of the Lee Johnson era so far has been that we still don’t quite know whether the likes of Anthony Patterson, Oliver Younger, Dan Neil, and Josh Hawkes are ready to become proper first-team players.
Whilst all of those players have shown promise with their performances for the U23s side, I still don’t feel like their positions within the squad has altered all that much since the current manager stepped through the doors.
That’s not a slight on those players, because individually they’ve all done brilliantly, but perhaps of those handling their development and careers.
Embleton was loaned out for many reasons, but one of them was because there was too much competition for the positions that he’s able to play in. Jack Diamond has been on the fringes of the first team, but hasn’t been given a real run in the side, and ultimately hasn’t had the right amount of proper opportunities to stake a claim.
That makes the task of the current recruitment group all the more difficult going into the pre-season. We don’t know whether we need to sign six players or say ten or twelve, because we don’t know if they’re ready to step straight in and play their part.
There’s been no full-blooded commitment to giving these lads the chance to start league games - though one argument you could make is that it’s much more difficult to afford these players opportunities when there’s so much pressure on gaining promotion at the tail end of the season.
It is, however, far easier if you commit to bringing these players into the fold in, say, pre-season. I have no doubt that all of the above listed players will gain ample game-time in pre-season, and that’s crucial, but it’s the stuff after that which concerns me slightly.
Part of me wonders now if we just have to commit to making these lads first-team squad members, even if some of them aren’t quite ready.
For as long as I can remember, at this club we’ve always favoured experience over youth. What is often the case, however, is that the experienced players aren’t usually that good.
The only way to find out if these lads are any good is to play them. We often fanny on too much and favour experience, even if experience is an over-the-hill, lower League One standard player that has never achieved a thing.
Let me give you an example.
We know that Anthony Patterson is a good goalkeeper - he wouldn’t have made it this far or been around the first-team picture if he wasn’t, and his performances at U23s level certainly back that up. For the long-term good of the club, would it not make sense to give the lad a chance, in favour of bringing in an older free agent - like we did with Remi Matthews, for instance - that we know isn’t going to get any better with us?
The other thing that niggles away at me is that if that gaggle of players was at pretty much any other League One club, you’d imagine that they’d all be first-teamers, whether they’re deemed totally ready or not.
Elliot Embleton is a prime example. He was nowhere near our first team this season, so we packed him off to Blackpool, where he’s played regularly, scored important goals, got assists, and is now set to start in a Play-Off final - whilst everyone involved at Sunderland watches on, and wonders why the hell he wasn’t playing in our team at the expense of one of the several other more senior options that have since been deemed unworthy of a new contract.
I’m over the moon for him and think it’s great that he’s gone away and proven his worth, but you have to wonder... how many times have players at the club been allowed to slip through the net because their development as senior players was ultimately hindered by our inability to commit to their long-term development?
This isn’t to say that all players that stand out at U23s level will eventually become good senior footballers - there are plenty of examples of talented youngsters who have looked the part, but weren’t able to make the step up in class.
But, there’s definitely a stage in their development where you need to do certain things in order to ensure that they become success stories and not failures that end up dropping down the leagues and, in some cases, out of football altogether.
Every player is different of course, but probably our two biggest success stories followed similar paths. It was a loan to Coventry for Jordan Henderson that catapulted him into our attention, and Jordan Pickford had played over 100 senior games at a series of other clubs before he was eventually thrust onto the scene under Sam Allardyce.
I think that in the case of Dan Neil - who is still just 19-year-old - the opportunity to send him out on loan, providing it’s to the right club, could possibly make sense, but I’d still be tempted to give him a chance and see where that takes us, particularly given he plays a position which has been stocked so badly since we dropped to this level.
But for Josh Hawkes, who is 22-year-old and already has plenty of first-team experience from his time at Hartlepool, his time has to be now. Because if it isn’t, when will it be?
If there was never a plan for Hawkes to come in, hit the ground running and then become a first-team player, then we should never have brought him to the club in the first place.
At some stage, I believe that we have to just commit to giving our best youngsters ample opportunities to succeed. I think that there’s no better time than right now, with the squad in need of a massive rebuild, with lots of spots in the team up for grabs.
When the ‘comfortable’ alternative is to sign average League One-standard players that might not even be any better, that will more than likely move on for nothing a year or two down the line, I think it’s an absolute no-brainer to finally commit to a proper plan for succession and development.
That time is surely now.