Sunderland are starting to make some waves with one or two eye-catching performances –both individually and as an incredibly young team.
There are pros and cons to a youthful side. One pro, as demonstrated against Reading, there doesn’t appear to be any fear among younger players.
Then again, one con being in the famous words of Alan Hansen, ‘You’ll never win anything with kids,’ (said after the opening day defeat of Manchester United’s young side to Aston Villa in the 1995/96 season, for those old enough to remember).
It’s ironic then that I make this comment ironically after Sunderland have just beaten a side managed by Paul Ince, one of the high-profile victims of United’s rebuild on the foundation of Scholes, Beckham and the Neville brothers.
Most of you old enough to be there will have cheered that youthful side as they pegged back Keegan’s ‘Entertainers’ and beat them to the title that year. Hansen ate his words and corrected himself five years later, saying he meant, ‘You can’t win everything with kids.’
An almighty climb down? Perhaps. But it’s probably true. I do feel there is a balance, and we need to keep a sense of perspective at this football club. We have been somewhat cynical of the ‘model’ at times. Play throughout the season like we did against Reading and Rotherham – all will be fine. But flatter to deceive, and the critics will rise again.
Certainly, we have strength in depth in some areas – others, up front, most noticeably, we have no plan B to call upon.
In the not-too-distant past, Sunderland flirted with idea of building a side in the image of Jurgen Klopp’s, then, Dortmund team. It was a youthful, exciting side full of products of their own making and individually worth a mint. But what the then Sunderland owners failed to realise was the German giants, Dortmund had the luxury of already being an accomplished and fully established Bundesliga side. They had time to develop, a patient fan base and didn’t have the threat of relegation looming year on year.
That would still be my concern with such a youthful experiment on Wearside. I’m certainly not trying to be defeatist; I was purring the same as any other Black Cats fan when the third goal went in against Reading – a team goal, Barca-esque.
But our management team need to be a little wary not to ignore gaping holes in the side just because they have another young player for another position in their sights. We’ve all commented at the lack of a late addition to our back or front lines before the summer window closed. But there is no doubting the ambitions and seeing some of fruits of our labours becoming apparent.
Everyone must be on the same page, which means from top to bottom of the club we need to be patient. Because for every road paved with Dortmund gold, there is a young Leeds Utd team littering the hard shoulder – warning lights on – for all their unfulfilled potential and broken promises.
Some may forget that the young and talented Leeds side of the early 2000s made it to the Champions League semi-finals, only to crash out of the Premier League within three seasons.
It was always a mystery to me – I’d watched Leeds the season they signed Michael Bridges from us break into the Champions League places. He was their most expensive addition, and the majority of the side were products of the youth team. There were only one or two other players signed for a million here and there.
Obviously, the following year, Robbie Keane and Rio Ferdinand boosted their ranks for a combined figure reported at the time to be in the region of £30m. But I always thought, once the stark financial turbulence hit them, that they should have been able to offset their debts by stripping the team back to the main side that Bridges had been such a star in and off-loaded the hefty and expensive additions only.
That can be the advantage of having a young core of a side, and where Sunderland needs to have a contingency, as I’ve outlined.
We may be able to invest larger sums again one day when back among the bright lights of English football. But keep your core side intact in the event of relegation or a change in fortunes. Go ahead, add Rolls Royce-type players to the side, but don’t do a Leeds, Keep the heartbeat of the squad together as the foundation.
Sunderland’s foundations are strengthening nicely, and finally, it doesn’t look like they are built on sand.