Leon Dajaku, Ron-Thorban Hoffmann, Nathan Broadhead, Fredrick Alves, Niall Huggins, Denis Cirkin, and, of course, Callum Doyle; all players aged between 17 and 23 with top-class pedigree but limited senior experience who are looking to make their mark with Sunderland men’s side this season.
These are young players with international ambitions, players who’ve stepped down the pyramid - whether as permanent or loan signings - to progress their careers, players who have the potential to take us back to the Championship and beyond.
Despite our status in League One, this is still the biggest club outside the top flight of English football, one with real Premier League infrastructure, and the largest, most passionate, and - quite rightly - the most demanding crowd. There is no better arena for them to develop.
Expectations are high on all sides - they’ve been recruited based on our footballing philosophy, and the club will expect them to perform to their abilities whilst adapting to playing men’s football twice a week and developing their games.
The fans expect lads who’ve played for their respective countries through the age groups to demonstrate that quality on a week-by-week basis. And the players themselves expect to be given the opportunities to shine that, we can safely assume, were part of the discussions that brought them to the club.
But patience will be required from all parties. The club, lead by Kristjaan Speakman with his expertise in youth development, should know that it won’t all come at once - that these young men are still growing, still maturing as people, still adapting to life in a new city and, in some cases, a new culture. They will make mistakes and they should be encouraged to play without fear and learn from errors rather than dwelling on them.
The fans need to play their part in this too, giving them a bit of slack and having a bit of empathy with players who, in many cases, are yet to get a dozen senior games under their belts. As long as we can see commitment and potential, Sunderland fans have shown ourselves to be patient with obviously talented youth - as is evident in how Elliot Embleton and, before him, Lynden Gooch, have taken a few years to become fully-fledged first-team performers.
The young recruits need to be patient too. In almost all cases, they’ve come here to get minutes and experience. But the established first eleven are performing fantastically, and so they’ll have to ensure that they always make their marks when introduced as substitutes, or during EFL Trophy matches. Their first task is to make Lee Johnson’s job as difficult as possible on Friday and Monday nights when he’s selecting his side for the following day.
My hope is that they can quickly integrate with the squad and become vocal leaders in their own right. They will have standards - they’ve trained day-in-day-out with the very best in the game. When you’ve come from pitting yourself against the likes of James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale, Thomas Müller, Manuel Neuer, Kyle Walker, Declan Rice, and Kalvin Phillips, your standards about what you expect in training are, understandably, going to be right up there.
This summer has been the most exciting transfer window I can ever remember - and I’ve seen a few in my time - but this is absolutely how it should be for a club of our stature at this level.
George Elek of the Not The Top Twenty podcast, who knows his onions when it comes to League One, was on Sky Sports News this week and gave a great assessment of the transformation underway at the Stadium of Light and the Academy under Kyril Louis-Dreyfus:
It’s a case of everything has changed, the personnel has changed, there's a new owner, there’s a new Sporting Director, Lee Johnson’s now the manager, and there's a massive churn of players.
Look at the player’s they’ve brought in... they’re recruiting youth, they’re recruiting talent, players who’ve either been released from [Premier League] academies or loanees, where if it goes well, the chances are they can probably sign them, because we see that often in the EFL.
So it’s a different way of running a football club, it’s a much more sustainable way of running a football club, and it’s the right way for a club of Sunderland’s size, because they’re building for the future. They should want to become a team where clubs like Sunderland were 10 years ago, want to send their youngsters to develop, and that’s what we’re seeing initially in their play this season.
NTT20 x @SkyFootball— Not The Top 20 Pod (@NTT20Pod) September 3, 2021
#2 - Part One. L1 Teams to Watch.
Why we’ve enjoyed covering @SunderlandAFC, @OfficialBWFC and @AFCWimbledon in @SkyBetLeagueOne this season.#SAFC #BWFC #AFCW@RokerReport @9yrspodcast @LionOfViennaSte pic.twitter.com/WSpZjE44lZ
Standards across the board have been in desperate need to be raised at our club for many, many years. There’s still an awful lot of work to be done, not least in the off-field operations and, particularly, making both the men's and women’s senior games more accessible to those fans without digital skills, smartphones, or who might be financially excluded.
But it’s abundantly clear to me, from what seen and heard so far this season, that this truly is the new era that was promised, that the footballing identity of the club will be implemented through all the squads, and that Sunderland - with these youngsters at the forefront - really are on our way back to where we belong.