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Development ground: Do Sunderland need to be more willing to play the kids?

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Do Elliot Embleton’s displays for Blackpool show that Sunderland need to be more willing to ‘throw the kids in’, and give them the room to develop?

Crystal Palace U23 v Sunderland U23: Premier League 2 Play-Off Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Elliot Embleton was lucky to get a kick at Sunderland. Of course, there have been some mitigating factors – we’ve been fairly well covered in those attacking midfield positions and when he has been given a chance, injuries have generally hampered any real opportunity of him getting a prolonged run in the side.

And, to be fair to everyone involved, when he has played he’s never produced the type of performance that makes you think ‘some player we’ve got on our hands’.

Over the past few years – in fact, for the past couple of decades – we’ve been in a continual state of purgatory. The next game is critical, outweighing everything else.

We’ve lurched from game to game, manager to manager, season to season, looking solely at the upcoming fixture, and basing everything upon that. From team selection to the manager’s future, our general feeling as a fan base to our opinions of a player, it’s mainly hinged on the most recent game.

This short-term thinking has seen us fall spectacularly, and ultimately fail for the past three seasons to even begin anything resembling a climb back up the leagues.

AFC Sunderland v Borussia Dortmund - Friendly Match
Five years and four Sunderland starts ago...
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

When Embleton left in January it was something of a surprise – he’d been around the first-team picture more under Lee Johnson, and it seemed he was finally going to be given more first-team action.

And it was needed.

He made his first appearance in a Sunderland shirt five years ago now – coming on in a friendly win against Borussia Dortmund. An England cap at under 17, 18, 19 and 20 level, he’s subsequently made four league starts for Sunderland.

FOUR LEAGUE STARTS in five seasons.

Three of which have been spent at League One level.

He’d spent the best part of the season at Grimsby a couple of seasons ago, making 26 starts, so prior to going to Blackpool, this highly-rated player had made a grand total of 30 league starts in five seasons.

18 games later, he’s won promotion from a division we’ve struggled to look like getting out of for three years.

Grimsby Town v Northampton Town - Sky Bet League Two
Embleton enjoyed a loan spell at Grimsby
Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images

I think it’s fair to say Embleton’s development has been really poorly managed by the club over the years.

Some will no doubt roll their eyes, but compare him to Mason Mount. Yes, the European Champions League winner Mason Mount. The England international Mason Mount.

Mount, born a couple of months before Embleton, had a similar youth career at international level – in fact, they were teammates at under 17, under 18 and under 19 level.

By the time Mount made his debut for Chelsea as a 20-year-old, he’d racked up more than 60 games on loan – firstly at Vitesse and then at Derby.

His development has been managed in a way that he’s been given the environment in which to make mistakes, develop and prove himself as a football player. But crucially, Chelsea – admittedly in part due to some circumstances that forced their hand – gave him a chance. And he’s absolutely taken it.

Compare that to Embleton’s development path. World’s apart.

Soccer - Sky Bet League One - Bradford City v Yeovil Town - Coral Windows Stadium
Pickford was loaned to League One Bradford as a 20 year old - he already had over 50 league appearances to his name

Look at Jordan Pickford. By the time he saw league action for us as a 21-year-old he’d played 116 games at various levels, gaining hugely valuable experience in ‘proper’ football.

I remember Jordan Henderson’s first game back after a loan spell at Coventry. He’d played a few games for Sunderland, and looked what he was – a kid playing men’s football. Ten games in the championship – and a pre-season – later, he was a different player.

Contrast [Pickford and Henderson’s development] that with the development of Embleton – or our former captain, George Honeyman. Yes, another one who’s been promoted from League One this season.

Honeyman’s first loan spell away from Sunderland came after his 21st birthday, by which time he’d played a grand total of four minutes of first-team football for us.


Play the kids!

As a fanbase, we’re not used to seeing young players being given their chance in the first team. We’re used to either loaning them out to lower division clubs and seeing them come back as more ‘experienced’ younger players, or releasing them when they haven’t made it.

Denver Hume is the most recent exception to that rule. A player who – in my opinion – is hugely talented.

Of course, he’s going to make mistakes. His heading was suspect to begin with and his crossing was indifferent a lot of the time. However, his attributes are there for all to see – he’s pacy, he’s got a nice touch, he plays with enthusiasm.

Lincoln City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One - Playoff - Semi Final - First Leg - LNER Stadium
A hugely promising player – will he stay?
Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

We’ve seen over the course of his first-team exposure a willingness to learn and get better, as evidenced by his improved defensive work. Yet he still attracts significant criticism.

He’s a 22-year-old who’s so far only played 60-odd games. Of course, he’s not the finished article.

Give him a couple of years of encouragement, however, and who knows where he could go. In fact, we might not have to wait that long – he’ll likely have championship contract offers on the table, and we may have seen him kick his last ball in the red and white.

For young players to develop, they’ve got to be given the opportunities and they’ve also got to get the backing from everyone involved.


‘The plan’

We’ve heard a lot so far from the new regime about ‘the plan’. An academy-centric approach that provides pathways from the AOL to the SOL. And not before time.

The academy exodus over recent years has been well documented and was no doubt primarily motivated by short term cost-covering. However, who could blame the likes of Luca Stephenson, Sam Greenwood, Logan Pye, Joe Hugill and the many others who’ve walked out of the door without so much as a ‘please stay’ whispered in their direction from looking at the development of Embleton, among others, and thinking it’s not the right club for them?

Upon relegation to League One, we had the perfect opportunity to build a side capable of going up the leagues with us. A young side, with a good number of academy products, would have been the perfect antidote to memories of Rodwell et al.

Despite Bali Mumba starting the opening few fixtures, Jack Ross never showed any real desire to give the younger players their chance in the first team, their chance to learn, play, make mistakes.

Mumba, incidentally, has just won promotion to the Premier League.

Sunderland v Newcastle U21: Checkatrade Trophy
Mumba was never given a real chance.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Phil Parkinson, even less so.

Of course, the environment created by the previous ownership was one that was focused on the next result.

Despite Lee Johnson being sold a manager who’s happy to give young players their opportunities, we’ve seen little or no evidence of it so far – maybe he’s been consumed by the short-termism, too? Nick Barnes said in a recent podcast that Johnson’s a risk-averse manager – he needs to be given the leeway to take chances and make mistakes – as long as they’re in line with the long-term plan.

Of course, there’s the very obvious alternative that the younger players simply aren’t good enough, and it is a fair point. However, while some players obviously won’t make the grade, Embleton’s performances for Blackpool suggest it’s certainly worthwhile giving them a chance.

Hopefully, Embleton will be a key part of the team next season – a lot will depend on his desire to stay at the club. Yes, he has a year’s contract, but he’ll surely be of the mindset that he should be – and can be – playing regular football next season. I wouldn’t be surprised if he thinks ‘enough’s enough’ and forces a move to Blackpool. I hope I’m wrong.

The likes of Dan Neil, Josh Hawkes, Anthony Patterson and Oliver Younger could – and probably should – have played a bigger role in the season just gone. And I think it’s fair to say they will during the coming season.

They’re probably not going to set the world on fire immediately, but with a bit of patience and understanding of the ‘bigger plan’ they could just be the backbone of a team that can do us proud over the coming seasons. They’re going to make mistakes. They’re not going to be the finished article, so we can’t complain when they’re not.

Surely, it’s worth a try?

Beats signing the likes of James Vaughan, Danny Graham and Remi Matthews, anyway.