When Kristjaan Speakman and Lee Johnson arrived within days of each other in December, there was a noticeable shift in rhetoric from what we’d heard from the football hierarchy in seasons gone by.
Johnson spoke of an exciting, entertaining style of play and a willingness to give youngsters a chance – manna from heaven after being subjected to 15 months of Phil Parkinson’s turgid football and selection of the likes of Danny Graham and Remi Matthews.
Similarly, when Kristjaan Speakman advocated using the academy to produce players for the first team it was music to the ears of all of us who’d watched our top prospects being flogged to keep the lights on (and the lifts in working order) rather than being developed for our first-team.
Of course, last season we were unlikely to see much evidence of change.
Off the field people were recruited to perform key roles that had been left untenanted; on the field, Johnson had to get the best out of a squad that was not his; something he did admirably until the poor run of form which curtailed the campaign.
It was only ever going to be after that point that we saw evidence of change – and while it would have been nice to have seen that change all in one fell swoop early in the pre-season, the real world doesn’t work like that.
The change was always going to be gradual.
While a number of players were moved out of the club, they were never going to be replaced directly; the likes of Embleton, Hawkes, Neil and Patterson were waiting in the wings and have been promoted into the first team. Supplemented by the signings of Evans and Pritchard – as well as another youngster in Doyle – we’re edging towards having a full quota of replacements by the end of the transfer window.
For too long the pathway from academy to first-team has been non-existent, never mind blocked. A string of managers have been lurching from day-to-day and haven’t had the space – or the bravery – to give the younger players a chance.
And the sight of those players being given first-team opportunities is going to be crucial on a number of levels.
For one, it means our brightest prospects in the academy can see there’s a genuine chance of first-team football at Sunderland. The previous regime threw their arms up and said ‘nothing we can do, sorry’ when the likes of Greenwood, Stephenson, Pye, Hugill, and god knows how many others leapt at the first opportunity.
Technically, they were correct – there wasn’t much they could do if the player decided to leave and, let’s be honest, if Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal came knocking asking your child to join their academy, it’d only be through blind faith that you’d recommend they stayed at the Academy of Light in 2019. But we certainly didn’t help ourselves – not least with the defined development path for each player. ‘Stay here and you’ll be playing first-team football within six months?’ Different proposition altogether.
Secondly, it makes Sunderland a desirable place for the brightest talent in the region to come to. When I was early teens playing Sunday football across the northeast, Middlesbrough was the club you wanted to be interested in you. They had the best reputation for the youth set up, and it was primarily because they were focused on developing players for the first team. Quite simply, the best young players went to Boro. That’s the reputation we want to develop: if you want to develop into a pro footballer, you want to go to Sunderland.
Thirdly, and probably most pertinently in respect of our current situation, it will make us increasingly appealing to that slightly older age group – the 18-22 group of players from Premier League and Championship clubs who want first-team football and who can’t quite get it where they are currently.
Of course, Dennis Cirkin is the first real sign we’ve seen of a new approach to transfers at Sunderland – on a permanent deal at least.
While Corry Evans and Alex Pritchard are seemingly high-calibre players for this level, their signings weren’t too far removed from what we may have done in the past.
Cirkin is different. Highly rated at Tottenham, he turned down a new contract there because he wanted to play first-team football. We waited to get the deal done – it would have been so easy to snap up any old left-back to start the season with. Sunderland of old would have done just that.
We bided our time.
Bringing in people of real quality is going to take time and some stern negotiation, but in both the short and long term it’s hopefully going to reap dividends.
As a club, we’ve got to maximise the huge advantages we have in League One – the size of the club, the stadium, the academy and the crowd.
For a player like Cirkin, who’s been brought up in a Premier League environment, joining Sunderland is surely the best of both worlds? He gets the first-team football that he evidently wants (and which, at 19 in my view, players need), he can continue to use Premier League standard facilities, and the club offers him a realistic possibility of getting back to the top flight. Impress here and he’ll be in the Premier League in three or four years – with or without us. Hopefully the former.
The signing of Cirkin excites me – it’s a different type of signing to ones we’ve made before and is more evidence of the change in tack at SAFC that spans from the grassroots to the first team.
The club’s going about its business quietly and diligently. It’s not panicking, it’s focused on the long-term ‘project’ while hopefully delivering in the short term.
While the immediate aim is always to get out of this league and back into the championship, doing so with a team containing a number of young players who can grow with us, develop and improve is ideal.
Are the days of short-termism over for good? It’s too early to say for certain, but the signs are promising.