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Stoke City U23 v Sunderland U23: Premier League 2 Play-Off

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Reader’s Corner: Is it time that Sunderland had a re-think about the purpose of our U23s squad?

Roker Report reader ‘AngryJoe’ wonders about the way Sunderland have utilised their best U23s players in recent years. Is it time that we have a re-think about the way they’re used? - send us an email!

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

What is the purpose of the U23s squad?

By the very definition of the name, it would be assumed that a majority of the players are in their 20s - though, some will of course be younger due to being fast-tracked because of ability.

Some may argue that the U23s league is far too big a gap between them and the first team - well, consider this. All clubs have always had the ability to organise behind closed doors games between any level of team they like. So, we could at any time supplement the U23s league games with as many other games as we like, and at any level!

It is widely expected that any league player should have racked up a number of first team appearances before they hit the age of 23 (George Dobson, who just left aged 23, has over 100 appearances at League One level).

How do they get that experience? It’s an interesting question.

Loans? If so, who too? Should they go out on loan to the bottom rung and work their way up, or should they go to a team maybe one or two leagues below our own to start?

If the latter, what happens if the first team are related? For example, when we were in the Premier League it was not unexpected for players to be loaned out to League One clubs.

Sunderland AFC Training Session Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

When the first team got relegated to first the Championship and then League One, that was the first team, not the U23s, so why should the performance of the first team affect the perceived level of the u23s players? Why should one moment our u23s be thought of as League One level, but then a couple of years later the same players deemed not good enough for League One because their senior counterparts have failed? It is no wonder a few of them have thought “hold on - I’m better than this” and have decided to leave.

A couple of examples might help.

Bali Mumba was a player with prospects who got his debut in the Championship, and did well - he did not look out of place. When we dropped to League One, he got a few games at the start of the season, and looked okay.

He was then relegated back to the U23s squad as he was deemed not ready, yet Norwich - a Championship team - looked at him and thought, “that will do”. He’s still in development, but he still got to play six first team games last season in a side that won the league! He is now part of a setup in a Premier League team, and could be playing top-level football way before Sunderland will again.

We have also seen other high-profile moves of our youngsters to Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, with the latter fast-tracking Joe Hugill into the first team setup for pre-season.

Manchester United Training Session Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

We should, in my humble uneducated opinion, be using the U23s squad as a backup reserve team, with the youngsters getting a run out in the first team should we have gaps due to injuries or suspensions. It would allow these young lads to get a couple of senior games under their belt, where they can be properly assessed and further developed.

Too often last season we played unfit or injured players or players out of position whilst our best U23s players sat on their hands - and this was from a manager who said he would include kids, just as Parky claimed, and Jack Ross before him.

Would they have been good enough? The debate on that would rage on for weeks - some yay, some nay. But playing them would answer the question, with the short duration they would be asked to play not likely to have too much of a negative impact on the team if they struggle.

At the end of the day, we need to know if these U23s will have the ability to step up. We will only find out if allowed to try and fail.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Papa John’s Trophy Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Nobody is saying that we should give them all forty games, but a lot of Sunderland fans would agree that Flanagan and Wright were still carrying injury issues at the end of last season, and were well below par. Yet, Ollie Younger sat there, unused.

We were willing to play Dion Sanderson, but not our own when so desperate.

You may argue Sanderson is far better than Younger, in which case the simple answer is we need to let Younger go, and recruit another young lad who could be the next Sanderson - otherwise, the young lad needs to be given games when injuries and suspension to first-teamers permit.

I for one want an end to playing people out of position. Play our seniors in their strongest place, where can have their greatest impact, and fill gaps with our best youngsters until the seniors are fit again and warrant a place!


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