When Sunderland’s transfer committee made the decision to allow key players from recent seasons to leave this summer - namely Danny Batth, Lynden Gooch and Ross Stewart - it was an insanely brave call.
Had they remained here, would those players have proven themselves as important this season? The answer, of course, is absolutely - they’re all very capable in their own right.
Letting so much key experience to go out of the door, particularly when you’re building a young side, might seem odd - but there was clearly method to the madness.
In many ways, Sunderland’s current way of working goes against everything you and I know about the game of football. It’s unconventional, particularly for our club where for many years we’ve been anything but innovative.
But experience seems to be relative. Whose experience is more important - a 33 year old with 500 senior games under their belt, or a 21 year old who has played in two play-off campaigns and has played for us on the grandest stage of them all, at Wembley?
Like I say, it’s all relative. The answer I suspect is that all experience, whether good or bad, whether the player is old or young, is valuable. It shapes the player they eventually become.
So for Sunderland, experience isn’t just measured on who the oldest players in the side are, but on who has been given the chance to prove themselves over many games. Who has been with the club for a long time and completely understands the place inside out?
Now, we have a new breed of leaders at Sunderland.
We’re signing players who have shown leadership qualities and professionalism from a young age.
We’re handing responsibility to players who may be young, but have been part of Sunderland AFC for most of their lives. They get it and get why they’re here.
Dan Ballard will captain teams in the Premier League. Dan Neil is playing like a Premier League midfielder currently and will no doubt end up there very soon. Jack Clarke has assumed the responsibility of the team’s chief goalscorer in the absence of Ross Stewart. Jobe Bellingham - who has only just turned 18 - plays with a maturity you just don’t see all that often in such a young player. Luke O’Nien was born to captain Sunderland. Trai Hume may look his age at 21 (that tash is fooling nobody!), but plays like a veteran, and tackles like a throwback from the 80s or 90s.
I could go on and on and on, but you catch my drift. As I said, experience and leadership is all relative, and right now in the absence of older heads, it’s the leadership qualities in some of our youngest players that are starting to shine through.
Whilst they are young, they’ve been through a lot together already in recent years.
Winning promotion from League One and then following that up with a fantastic season last time out was great, but it’s those experiences that will shape the direction of this season.
They may look like boys, but they certainly don’t play like them. They’re men.
Whisper it quietly, but much of what we’ve seen from this side in recent weeks has all the hallmarks of a side that’s ready to take things to the next level - and by ruthlessly winning games of football, we’re showcasing all the qualities you want to see from a team that’s driven to achieve and be successful. And to me, that’s true leadership.