Saturday 17th July 2021. 3pm. Tynecastle, Edinburgh. Sunderland travel to Hearts to play their second game of pre-season; another 90-minute workout to prepare the squad for another long, arduous season where promotion to the Championship is once again the sole aim.
The day before the Hearts game, Sunderland had confirmed the signing of a 17-year-old centre-back from Manchester City by the name of Callum Doyle. Unknown to many outside of the Etihad academy set-up, me included, the signing raised a few eyebrows on Wearside, mainly due to Doyle’s age.
Some were quick to pour cold water on the transfer before the ink on the contract was dry. It was a surprise to most that we would acquire a player so young.
The usual things run through the mind. Is he robust enough? Physical enough for the demands of a third-tier promotion push? What is his character like? Could he handle the demands and expectations of playing in front of a raucous Stadium of Light crowd? On a sunny afternoon in Edinburgh, we would all witness a display from Callum Doyle that would answer some of those questions.
After the signing of Doyle was confirmed, Lee Johnson gave some comments to the local media that would shed some further light on the deal itself. This is taken from The Northern Echo…
We are grateful to Manchester City for believing in us as a club to be able to help develop somebody like Callum. He is a very talented player, but obviously he is still very young, so the expectation of him in terms of the first team is that we are quietly confident he can have a big impact as time goes on. At six foot three, he is very good technically, can carry the ball and has a lovely left foot, but of course man-on-man combat is what he has to break through and be comfortable with. Overall, we are delighted to put him amongst our squad and believe that he can be a real positive for us.
Doyle himself said…
I’m a big presence at the back and I like to bring the ball out, but I also love a duel. I’m over the moon to be here and I’m very excited to get started.
At Tynecastle against Hearts, Doyle would indeed ‘get started’. It would be the first glimpse Sunderland supporters would see of Doyle in first-team action.
Now, I must be clear here, I’ve never been one to get carried away with any signing, perceived at the time to be either good or bad. The proof of the pudding is in the eating as they say.
Yes, our game up in Edinburgh was only a friendly. An exercise to purely build up match practice and fitness ahead of another long season. Aiden McGeady bagged both of our goals in a routine 2-0 victory, silencing some of the taunts that were directed at him all game from the home faithful.
Despite that double, it was Callum Doyle that was the shining light on the day for Sunderland.
I’ll be honest, as I sat down to watch the game, I’m not sure what I was expecting. Obviously, the main focus is to see where the team is at as a whole, but of course, the signing of Doyle had pricked my interest a little more.
Only a few minutes in, it was immediately apparent to even the casual observer, as to what Doyle the player was all about. I was immediately struck by his size and physicality. Despite that, he is both mobile and strong; fantastic attributes to have at 17 years of age, and Doyle has the intelligence to get the best out of his own attributes.
He is calm and composed on the ball, always looking for a forward, penetrating pass, either into midfield or into the feet of a forward player. We have also seen that he can switch the play by swinging a 40-50 yard pass onto the wing, starting attacks in the process. The ability he possesses for one so young is quite frightening to be brutally honest. There are not many young players that I can remember, having such an impact on me as Doyle did, as I watched him that day in Edinburgh. Jonny Evans is one that springs to mind, along with Jordan Pickford.
Doyle has since shown in our league games that he is indeed robust enough for a slog in the English third tier.
Whatever you think of Charlie Wyke, the harsh reality is that Doyle never once looked troubled by the striker on the opening day of the season against Wigan. Centre-forwards don’t come much bigger in League One than AFC Wimbledon’s Ollie Palmer, and Doyle was able to handle his physicality as we beat the London side 1-0, keeping a much-needed clean sheet.
I feel that positionally is where we can truly see what Doyle’s game is all about. He possesses a football brain that belies his years. He can intercept and anticipate; his reading of the game is already outstanding. It is a testament to the way Manchester City have brought him through their academy. Doyle has outgrown Under 23s football already, and that is both a scary, and exciting thought.
Manchester City, and for now Sunderland, have a real player on their hands here.
As I said a little earlier, I am certainly not one to get carried away, particularly with the signing of young players from the Premier League big boys, or even a player coming through our own academy. We are allowed to be excited though. We are allowed to wax lyrical about such a prospect.
What has to remain of great importance though is that we absolutely cannot put too much pressure on one so young. He will make mistakes, as all players do. Lee Johnson will know if and when to take him out of the firing line. The early signs though are that Doyle possesses the mental attributes to handle playing for Sunderland.
We have seen seasoned professionals wilt under the strain of trying to be successful here. Some players quite simply haven’t been able to handle it.
If you are successful on Wearside though, you will leave a hero. It is still very early days, but we may have a new hero at The Stadium of Light this season. I for one, am very excited to see how the 2021/22 season unfolds, not just for the club as a whole, but for young Callum Doyle.
Hold onto your hats folks, another rollercoaster ride is in store.