Just before the start of last season, as part of preparations (including the influencing of possible loan deals), our former head coach lined some of our younger talents up in a friendly against League Two opposition.
Those of us who had spent the months prior starved of watching the lads play did actually watch this game, but it wasn’t what you’d call a classic. It ended a goalless draw - not a total surprise given our striking option was a fire retardant William Grigg - and not much really separated the two sides that day.
Now that’s a pretty forgetful game for most - it had no impact on our season beyond proving that the aforementioned £4,000,000 worth of faulty incendiaries was still about as useful as a mind-the-gap sign written in braille, but it stuck with me.
Amongst our starting lineup that day were some lads we would see occasionally in the following months and a few we would see a lot of over the course of the season, but the individual talents of Dan Neil, Jack Diamond, Ellis Taylor and Anthony Patterson aren’t specifically what I’m here to talk about - though they are exactly the sort of players I had in mind when writing.
I’m here to talk to you about our bairns - not just a couple of breakthrough characters, but all of them. Sunderland’s academy has changed somewhat over the years, it has gone from a couple sheds at the Charlie Hurley Centre - it was a field with a gate for those too young to recall - to a state-of-the-art 21st-century facility capable of producing some of the greatest talents in English football.
Not only did it differ in location, comfort, capacity, technology and the rest, but it also differed in the fact of who was behind the scenes - the scouts, the coaches and the people who took care of our up-and-coming teenagers eager to leave their stud marks on the history of the game.
Mentorship is important, and as what you could consider a selling club - which is what we are if this plan is to be followed - it’s arguably the most important part of player development.
Now under the tutelage and wisdom of lads like Monty, Pop Robson, Sbragia, Cookie, Brace and Sacko to name but a few members of those coaching teams of a bygone era, that couple of rough pitches and those sheds were merely props. Practical but lacking in glamour, comfort, warmth or many of the amenities young lads coming through have come to expect, the Charlie Hurley Centre was one of the best places to learn not just how to play the game, but how to play the game at Sunderland AFC.
The people who helped shelter some of these lads when training was over, by providing digs and regular warm meals, were local couples who many of the players from that era will remember well with much love and adoration - their care for the lads raised by them is never forgotten by those who came through, regardless of any success or lack thereof in the game.
Hundreds if not thousands of future players came through this system, and a great many came through strong. Part of the reason for this was the fact that if they had talent, ability, something approaching the right mindset (they were teenagers after all) and enough desire, they would get their chance.
So this is the crux of what I’m getting at; giving these young lads a chance. Only I’m not actually talking about the club itself. and that mentorship I’m referring to isn’t limited to the coaches, managers or sporting directors.
This is very much about us - the fans.
It has never been about the facilities for many players past and present, it has never been about a lack of people to look up to, good tutors and caregivers - though I’d argue a few of the modern coaching staff have some big boots to fill.
It has always been about desire and passion for the game, and to a greater extent for those local lads specifically, the pull of playing for your club… the want to please your peers in the wider community, to walk in the footsteps of legends of Sunderland Association Football Club, to lead one of the oldest and largest clubs in English footballing history to glory - even if that glory was lessened over time from league titles and trophies to survival and eventually ill-fated cup runs, derby wins, and last-minute goals on freezing winter nights against far more recently successful opposition.
So what is it about our youth that, for so long, has meant that these lads - sons of our city and our wider region - are so easily attacked, so often disregarded by a great many members of the fanbase itself?
Why do we set the bar so incredibly high for these bairns? Why aren’t we - not necessarily the club - willing to give some players a chance beyond a couple games?
I’m not sitting here arguing for standards to drop or that bar to lower to a point where poor players with zero talent somehow make it into the first team, though a couple have slipped in unnoticed. No, I’m trying to appeal to those people who may be missing the point of it all.
We are reliant on our young lads, far more than many are willing to admit to, and yet they face the most pressure of all at the club despite often being locals and often being quite poorly paid - giving up early on a career in any other industry in the hope of securing a career in football.
They have more to lose than most, but also - and I think this is where the problem lies on a subconscious level regarding our criticism of them - the most to gain.
You see we all wanted what they want, we all grew up wanting to do what they have the opportunity to do. As fans, our dream isn’t just to be able to celebrate these wins of ours; our dream is to be on that pitch winning these games ourselves.
For most this is pure fantasy, we don’t have the talent they have, we failed through a lack of luck or happenstance to secure a spot. We have lads like this at RR - competent footballers in their younger days who lost out on their opportunity to progress to that level at the club, and who went on to take normal jobs that could guarantee an income. You have to be pragmatic at the end of the day, and clinging on to dreams is a dangerous business if you want to do things like… feed yourself and the like.
In my opinion, a lot of the hate - and it is hate because it’s delivered as such - directed at the young lads if they so much as misplace a pass in a friendly is, at its core, jealousy.
I don’t think a lot of people put a great amount of thought into what they’re saying online - seriously just look at the state of the world’s online society without feeling the strong urge to drink heavily - but as one of the older members of our group reminded me recently, it isn’t anything exclusive to a particular generation; it’s just amplified, prominent and highly visible currently thanks to the wonders of t’internet in the modern world.
The difference between the young players of our past and those now boils down to the opportunities each group is/was given. The players of the 80s and 90s - for example - who came up through the older system were often given more of an opportunity to prove themselves, in that they played far more football at a level that nowadays, division-specific, you rarely get. Players such as Gordon Armstrong, Gary Owers, Craig Russell, Micky Gray and many more played a greater number of games at a young age against fully matured, professional (often violent) and highly experienced sides - from their teens through to their early twenties - than most of their modern counterparts play over an entire career.
In some cases this proved by their own admission to be a negative overall regarding longevity at a high level, something they have discussions about to this day, simply because the strains they were put under physically and psychologically caught up with them quicker than most.
They were thrown into the lion’s den young, and they came out with more than a few scars to show for it. We now - as is often the case with these things - consider these men as legends and heroes of our club from a period in club history that was, to say the least, a little up and down regarding success and failure, but that’s football for you.
The point is they had not just one chance, not just one short run of matches, not just one single season to prove they deserved their places - though many would argue they still didn’t get enough.
I may have started this piece as a response to the criticisms levelled at our youth - players like Patterson, who was derided despite having very little opportunity to show his talents until very recently, and Jack Diamond, a young prospect who was deemed not ready by our sporting director and coaches, who required more time and regular football, resulting in his very successful loan at Harrogate Town.
Just now I think about it, this could go just as easily for older lads and newcomers to our club - I haven’t forgotten the same people you may see being critical of these lads having the opinion that Ross Stewart and Alex Pritchard were a waste of time *before* they had the opportunity to prove themselves.
It just boils down to this for me. If we have learned anything at all from our time supporting our club, it’s the fact that we do not know what some people - at a boardroom or pitch level - are actually capable of until they are given an opportunity, and in many cases, time.
It’s not really whether your opinion on our young lads is eventually proven to be true, but the attacks online or offline are not helping them to achieve their goals. Your hate was not a vital component of the successful promotion some of these lads helped achieve. You weren’t and aren’t supporting them in that sense, and we’re not talking about constructive criticism, we’re talking about sweeping statements with very little thought given on platforms that in this day and age are frequented regularly by the very people we need to come good, the very people who may one day get down to make that vital stop that secures victory, that lays the pass off for the winning goal in a vital tie.
We like to think that our expressed opinions are just that, and that everything negative that is overcome helps build character and is somehow necessary to the development of young lads, but it’s a lie we tell ourselves as fans as much as it is a lie the objects of our collective derision tell themselves as players.
It’s bullshit to protect ourselves from our own daft decisions, our own mistakes, our lack of honesty with ourselves as people, and our many terrible takes. In the players' cases, it’s bullshit to cover up the fact that the opinions of the supporters cuts deeper than any knife, hits harder than any reprimand from the coaching staff, or any studs-up tackle and battering they may receive on the pitch.
Ultimately in my repeated and honest opinion, the less unnecessary pressure we apply through a lack of patience and thought, and the more chances we give as fans and mentors of the living embodiments of our club’s future, the more chance that our youth will actually thrive - thanks to the environment they exist in, and the support of not just some of within the club but all of us within the far larger family of SAFC.
After all, what have we got to lose?