The well-known chant of ‘he’s one of our own’ is one of the most comforting refrains you can ever hear as a football fan.
For clubs that have gone through periods of upheaval, there are few more uplifting stories than that of a local player who advances through a club’s youth ranks, before emerging into the first-team picture and living the dreams of the fans on a weekly basis.
This season, that position has been filled by Dan Neil, but while he continues to impress, the future of another Sunderland prospect, the exciting Jack Diamond, is intriguingly poised.
With the exception of a brief recall when Sunderland’s squad was struck by Covid, Diamond has enjoyed a highly successful loan spell at Harrogate Town this season, contributing thirteen goals and a further nine assists. On Monday, he was duly awarded the club’s players’ player of the year award, and it is clear that he has benefited enormously from the opportunity to play regular first-team football.
With that in mind, and given that there is likely to be a significant turnover of players this summer, where does the young winger fit into Sunderland’s plans for next season? Will he be deemed ready to take the next step in his progression, or, depending on which league we are in, would another loan move be the best option?
You only have to take a cursory glance at our current squad to find two examples of players who have advanced their game significantly as a result of loan moves.
Anthony Patterson, now firmly established as our first-choice goalkeeper, was the subject of rave reviews during his time at Notts County, and Elliot Embleton’s spell at Blackpool between January and May 2021, which culminated in promotion to the Championship, undoubtedly helped him to refine his game, the results of which we are now seeing on a weekly basis.
Naturally, as his future is discussed, some fans may use the familiar argument that Diamond has ‘found his level’ at Harrogate, and that there is little reason to get excited about a player whose numbers must be put into context, considering the quality of the league in which he has been playing.
Nevertheless, he has clearly done everything that has been asked of him at Harrogate, and when he returns to the Stadium of Light, he will doubtless be eager to show that he has developed as a player, after tasting first team action intermittently over the past eighteen months.
During his first team appearances for Sunderland, it was obvious that, despite showing flashes of promise, Diamond was nowhere near the finished article as an attacker.
Much like Leon Dajaku, he was quick and elusive, but his football intelligence was clearly lacking, and he was often prone to overcomplicating things when the simple move was the better option. Nothing untoward there, but if he has worked on those weaknesses and taken his coaches’ feedback on board, that is hugely important.
Taking a broader perspective, the bigger picture is that Sunderland AFC and pacy, dynamic attackers have often been uneasy bedfellows in recent years.
Duncan Watmore showed promise but was far too injury-prone; Jordan Jones often flattered to deceive, Dajaku has experienced a challenging first season in English football, and Jack Clarke has shown little to justify the expectation that surrounded him when he first arrived. Patrick Roberts, on the other hand, has been solid since he arrived, and his experience of playing at a higher level has undoubtedly played a part in that.
In Diamond, we have a player who, if given a chance, could certainly add potency to our attack, and it is only through persistence and patience that we will ultimately see the best of him. After all, what is the purpose of an academy, if not to produce homegrown talents that can contribute to the future success of a club?
Is there a guarantee that Diamond will immediately be good enough to establish himself as a long-term option? Absolutely not, but that doesn’t mean he won’t make the grade with time. His progression may be slower than Dan Neil’s, for example, but his potential is significant.
It feels inevitable that Alex Neil is going to build a squad of his own making this summer, and I get the sense that he is willing to give every player a clean slate ahead of next season. If Diamond returns to the club, shows a good attitude and a willingness to learn, there is every chance that 2022/2023 could be his time.