As we all know, there are many, many things to love about this Sunderland team.
From our positive, attack-minded approach to football to the selfless ethos that runs through the squad, not to mention the fact that these lads clearly love playing for us and are relishing, rather than being crushed by the responsibility of wearing the red and white stripes.
However, one thing that’s perhaps not celebrated as much as it ought to be is that this squad is a triumph of broad-mindedness and forward thinking when it comes to scouting, and of a willingness to back talent unequivocally, regardless of background.
A quick glance at the group reveals a level of diversity that’s arguably not been seen on Wearside in the lifetimes of many of our supporters.
It’s taken an immense amount of hard work and patience on behalf of everyone, but it’s starting to take shape at a rapid rate and the organic way in which it’s been constructed makes it extremely rewarding.
Bringing Abdoullah Ba from the renowned academy setup at Le Havre, for example, was seen as a gamble last year, but in recent weeks, the young attacker has started to show exactly why we persuaded him to make the switch from France in the summer of 2022, with some exciting performances that have fully vindicated Tony Mowbray’s faith in him.
Likewise, the rapidly improving Jobe Bellingham is no longer merely ‘Jude’s younger brother’ whose name could seemingly be a burden and who was destined to walk forever in the shadow of his Galactico sibling.
Instead, he’s flourishing as a Championship-calibre midfielder, with his physical prowess, football intelligence and composure currently at a level far beyond what you might expect from an eighteen-year-old who’s still finding his way in senior football.
Another player who stands proudly on the leading edge of this new wave of young talent is Pierre Ekwah.
After a shaky start to his Sunderland career following a January switch from West Ham, Ekwah is now a key component of our team and a real fans’ favourite, with his effervescent personality and infectious love for the game adding some real joy, both on the pitch and doubtless in the dressing room as well.
In the not-too-distant past, Sunderland was often represented by players who were respected and admired, but perhaps not loved.
However, that’s now changed dramatically, and judging by the reactions on the terraces from when the Lads come out to warm up to when they leave the field after a game, the fans have taken them to their hearts and embraced them as members of the wider red and white family.
Everywhere you look, our squad is filled with genuine feel-good stories and examples of players who’ve seized the opportunity that was presented to them, and just as they deserve immense credit for doing so, those responsible for bringing them to Sunderland deserve praise, too.
As time goes by, it’s increasingly obvious that these players weren’t signed as some kind of fanciful ‘hit and hope’ exercise or because it was suddenly in vogue to tap into overseas markets.
Instead, they’re blessed with attributes that fit our vision like a glove, and placed into an environment that rewards creativity, work rate and discipline, and where mistakes aren’t terminal, everyone is reaping the rewards: the club, the players themselves, and the supporters.
Football in 2023 has never been more culturally diverse, and throughout Europe’s leading divisions, you’ll find countless examples of players from different backgrounds, religious persuasions and ethnicities, many of whom endured adversity or were raised in challenging circumstances, and have since risen to prominence.
There’s no doubt that Sunderland, under the current regime, is positioning itself as a club with such inclusivity at its heart, and it really is uplifting. Never in my lifetime has this been the case to such an emphatic degree, and frankly, I think it’s something we should’ve embraced some time ago.
In the late 1990s, I remember a minor controversy that arose in the wake of then-Chelsea boss Gianluca Vialli naming a starting eleven with no Englishmen in it for a Premier League game.
His response? To graciously defuse the argument by declaring that as ‘long as his players spoke the same language on the pitch’, that was all that mattered.
Likewise, when Alan Pardew said that Arsenal’s run to the 2006 Champions League Final wasn’t ‘necessarily a triumph for English football’, Arsene Wenger dismissed his gripes by declaring that representing a football club was about ‘values’ and not about passports.
Both Vialli and Wenger were correct, and certainly it feels as though Sunderland are channeling that spirit in 2023. Every single player is invested in what we’re trying to achieve, and that’s such an important foundation on which to build.
There’s no doubt that it forms a significant part of our vision for the future, and it’s certainly something to be embraced. Last season, Mowbray’s stated vision of helping the players to develop as human beings as well as footballers might not have been seen as groundbreaking, but it was significant.
These lads are the immediate and hopefully longer term future of our club, and if this is a taste of what’s to come, we could be embarking on quite a journey in the years that lie ahead.