Walking away from a frustrating afternoon at the SOL after the Cardiff game, where yet another team arrived with the clear intention of slowing the game down against our exciting young talents, a thought came back to my mind.
It was one that first came to me during the dark days of League One, when team after team arrived with little ambition other than to stifle us on their big day out. I particularly remember one match where barely any of the ball boys or girls were big enough to clamber over the advertising hoardings to retrieve the ball. With smaller crowds to help return any stray footballs, it simply played into the hands of any anti-football opponents.
Against Cardiff, that thought occurred - our ball boys and girls were very few in number, and spread out. But they were also very passive - it seemed to take too long for them to react when the ball went out of play.
Let me stress at this point that I am not having a go at any young fan who gets the chance to be pitchside - what I am questioning is the suitability, and particular the preparation for the role. This is, after all, a professional sport, and we are aspiring to the elite level.
So when I ask the question “Should Sunderland do a ‘Wimbledon’?”, I am not proposing we follow any initiatives from our erstwhile League One protagonists.
I am suggesting that we could take a leaf out of the book of the hallowed traditions of the Wimbledon tennis championship.
The prestigious tournament is an annual event, with a strict selection process and training programme for those lucky enough to have an opportunity to step out onto any of the pristine courts of SW19 to retrieve the iconic Slazenger balls. What I have in mind would not be quite so selective or demanding - but recycling the ball more efficiently should only benefit the fast-paced game we are becoming so effective at.
A slight increase in the number of youngsters around the pitch, coupled with better coaching and preparation for their role, could pay dividends against opponents who arrive with the intention to frustrate, and hope to snatch a goal.
Firstly, in possession, it will help our lads maintain momentum. We possess players with the agility of thought to take advantage of opportunities when the opposition are still trying to regroup. Think Burstow’s raking pass to release Jack Clarke against Sheffield Wednesday.
Secondly, out of possession, it will reduce the time that the ball is out of play for those teams who arrive at the SoL with the mantra ‘frustrate, frustrate, frustrate’ ringing in their ears.
But it will also put pressure on match officials, if the ball is available and the away team is stalling. We have had a mixed bag in the approach to the new guidelines about punishing time wasting - some referees are taking a more robust stance than others. But it is an initiative that should favour the type of football that Tony Mowbray’s Fluorescent Adolescents are trying to play, and one that we should be pushing to take advantage of.
Is this really something worth bothering about? I believe it is. Another contributor wrote recently about Luke O’Nien growing into the captain’s role, and mastering the dark arts, getting in the referee’s ear as captain. It is those sorts of marginal gains which can ultimately make the difference between success or failure.
From the research I have done, there is nothing to stop Sunderland from implementing such an approach. There is a minimum requirement for the number of ball boys and girls but no maximum and, as long as they provide the same service to both teams, there is nothing which says this can’t be done.
If teams want to come to the Stadium of Light and shut up shop, what better way to unsettle their game plan than by speedily retrieving the ball.
I can’t claim any credit for this particular proposal - allegedly it formed part of Pep Guardiola’s strategy for Manchester City’s 2022 victory over Atletico Madrid. He even made a video for the ball boys and girls explaining how their role fitted in with the team’s game plan.
With the ability that Sunderland now possesses, having the ball in play for the maximum possible time should benefit both this team, and the fans who pay their hard earned money to watch.