During the wilderness years that spanned 2018 to 2022, it would be an understatement to say that Sunderland AFC went through something of an identity crisis.
Indeed, quite what the club stood for during that period became blurred as the realities of third-tier football began to bite. What kind of players were we targeting? What was the blueprint, and how were we going to change things to ensure that we never ended up in such a desperate situation again?
Players came and went with regularity and varying degrees of success; several managers tried and failed to haul us out of League One, and all of this was done against the backdrop of a fanbase traumatised by the plunge down the footballing pyramid and the ongoing fear about what the future held.
Fast forward to early 2023 however, and the picture is different, and a hell of a lot more encouraging.
Saturday’s last-gasp FA Cup victory over Shrewsbury was another test passed by our young and burgeoning squad, and even though it was arguably too close for comfort, winning in such style can only give the players increased belief that what they’re doing is paying dividends.
The club has embraced a new way of thinking over the past eighteen months, and the sight of Chris Rigg making his first-team debut on Saturday and becoming our youngest-ever outfield player in the process was very special.
From a historical perspective, Rigg had only just been born when we were celebrating our promotion to the Premier League under Roy Keane in 2007, and now he finds himself in the first team picture before he’s even sat his GCSEs.
This really is an indication of the direction in which our academy is now moving, and an example of the faith that Tony Mowbray and his coaches had in Rigg to have a positive impact on a tricky game.
Whether Rigg will remain on Wearside, given the constant noises about his future and rumours of interest from Newcastle is a question for another day, but the wider point is that we’ve transitioned from being a club that doubled up as a retirement home for journeymen to a place that nurtures budding players and can help them to unlock their potential.
Young, talented footballers, including those who’ve perhaps had a taste of the big time and not quite made it, can now find a home at Sunderland.
This is illustrated by Jack Clarke, it’s epitomised by Aji Alese, and it’s doubtless going to continue for as long as the current regime is in charge.
The idea that we could establish a conveyor belt of talent, something that would’ve been considered nothing short of fantasy not that long ago, is slowly but surely coming to fruition. The much-derided ‘Dortmund model’ might never have come to pass, but this is something equally exciting.
Among other things, I genuinely like this Sunderland team, and that’s something I haven’t always been able to say in recent years.
I like the professionalism being shown by the lads and the continued desire to improve. I like the example being set by our longer-serving players, and above all, I like the collective sense of pride that representing this club is bringing out of the players.
We’ve endured some horrific moments in order to arrive at this point, but that makes the current upward curve all the sweeter. Overhauling the failed system of old and implementing a modern structure hasn’t been a quick fix and nor should it have been, but it was absolutely necessary.
Sunderland AFC of 2023 is vastly different from the hollowed-out shell of 2018, and we’re so much healthier for it. Plenty of painstaking work has been undertaken, a lot of it unseen by the supporters, and the fruits of that labour are starting to ripen.
Pathways to the first team from the academy are being laid, the recruitment is being geared towards players who’ve yet to peak, and when injuries bite, there’s always a player able to step into the breach if and when they’re needed.
The turbulence of recent years will always be a cruel reminder of how quickly things can turn sour, but we’re no longer a basketcase of a football club. People know what we stand for and what our ethos is, and it’s something that should give hope to each and every supporter.