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Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One

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Opinion: “Did too many young guns cost Lee Johnson his job?” - Pondering Johnson’s demise

“I can not think of any club, anywhere at the present that would blood so many young players in the first team at once”, writes Mark Wood.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

It's fair to say that if you could choose a word to sum up the mood of the last few days, then shell-shocked would be one.

Even after watching Sunderland’s horrific showing at Bolton on Saturday, I did not see the events of Sunday coming. Not even with the numerous postings calling for Lee Johnson’s head, and the steady stream of calls to national radio echoing this did I think that our chairman, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus would waver.

With us in the middle of such a close four way fight for promotion, my own feeling on Saturday night and into Sunday was that now was the time to hold our nerve. However, that is not to be and this is not an article on the rights and wrongs of Lee Johnson’s sacking.

There are plenty of others debating that.

The question that hasn’t been discussed in-depth, however, is how it came to this. Particularly, how can a team that has the talent to take apart other sides and put them to the sword on a regular basis, also have the fragility to be taken apart just as comprehensively?

There is a reason, in my opinion, which is glaring and hits right between the eyes. Sunderland can win and lose by 3, 4, 5 and now 6 goals over the course of half a season.

Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One
Ross Stewart marauding vs Sheffield Wednesday
Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The club has a recruitment strategy of bringing in young talented players, putting them straight into the first team and developing them. It is something which we have all been excited about and all bought into, myself included.

On Saturday we started with Hoffman (age 22), Doyle (18), Cirkin (19), Djaku (20), Neil (20) and Embleton (22). That is six of the starting eleven. Furthermore of these players, three are in their very first season of senior football anywhere, two have only 40 appearances each in the third tier of German football before arriving, which left Elliot Embleton as the only one with any real League One experience before this season (18 appearances for Blackpool).

Add to that, Ross Stewart in his first full season of English League football.

These are all players who have played week in week out since the season started, and we have more of a similar age and experience in the squad.

I can not think of any club, anywhere at the present, and very few in the past that have had such an ambitious strategy to blood so many young players all together in the first team at once.

We have all loved seeing it, but certainly at just about every other club you would see at the most two or three raw young players in the first-team squad. Their appearances on a limited basis while they get used to first-team football over a season or two, and with plenty of experienced heads around them.

Looking at it like that on paper, in my opinion, it quite makes sense how a team swings from beating a good side 5-0 to losing 6-0 to a side in the lower reaches of the table.

That is on paper. On the pitch, looking back at key moments, key performances from Saturday made more (horrific) sense.

Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Bolton marauding vs Sunderland
Photo by Dave Howarth - CameraSport via Getty Images

Hoffman’s decision making; Cirkin’s left flank targeted throughout the game; Doyle and Batth unable to decide which day of the week it was between them. No apparent idea at all from Neil and Embleton how to manage the game.

From a relatively calm opening where we actually looked the team more in control, sheer panic and chaos unfurled after the first goal went in.

It was like when the door had been kicked open, the whole house came crashing down.

I have seen others say “where were our leaders?” - but what leaders or senior players did we have out on the pitch? Carl Winchester, we have seen can look great coming forward at right-back, but struggles when the team is put under the cosh.

Danny Batth has just arrived at the club, and has been put straight in alongside unfamiliar teammates. Lynden Gooch... a leader? He’s vocal and plays with plenty of fire and fighting spirit, but he always directs it at the ref.

That leaves Corry Evans, and from what I could see he didn’t really give up, but he was one man trying to hold it together when everything was collapsing around him.

Wycombe Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Alex Burstow/Getty Images

When Denver Hume left last week, I mentioned how he was in my opinion ‘undercooked’ with a season and a half of senior football in his career. That is three times the amount of senior football at League One level that Cirkin, Neil, Doyle, Dajaku, Stewart and Hoffmann have. Elliot Embleton has slightly more with his loan to Blackpool.

With the transfer window shut, our squad is what it is now.

There will be more wins, and more defeats to come.

Our young guns can play high-quality football, which we have all loved watching, yet the same players struggle to know how to manage a game when things are not falling their way. That is down to inexperience, and it won't be gained in half a season.

This for me is one reason, but not the only one.

One final thought is that we also have the youngest chairman in the English League football by some distance.

At 25 years of age, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus is not much older than some of the inexperienced players out on the pitch - and he has just made a bigger call than any they have had to face.

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