It’s been rare this season to have a moment to pause for thought. The World Cup naturally gave us a couple of weeks, but since then the schedule’s been relentless, and the past week has enabled us to take a breather and reflect on what has, to date, been a pretty successful season.
Of course, there are plenty of ‘what ifs’ so far this campaign – the ‘what if Ross Stewart had been fit all season’ will keep you awake at night if you let it, and likewise the ‘what if we’d signed another striker or two’ question will frustrate if you let it.
But the club’s heading in the right direction – the trajectory over the past 12 months has been firmly ‘north east’, which is a positive in any business.
And, with eight games left and sitting in 11th place, we’ve got to be pretty happy with how the season’s panned out so far. We can sit back and enjoy the rest of the season, with little worry of going down, and little expectation of going up. It’s an unusual feeling.
Twelve months ago we were also in an international break, but the sentiment around the club was completely different.
Off the back of a 0-0 at Lincoln City – and the sudden retirement of Jermain Defoe, who left us in the lurch after a hero’s return only six or seven weeks earlier – we were sat in 6th place in League One, a striker down.
Alex Neil hadn’t exactly set the world alight in his eight games in charge – winning just three – and we were all thinking another season in the third tier was more likely than not.
If you’d told me then that, in 12 months time, we’d be sitting comfortably in the Championship, and our international call ups would be – for example, playing and scoring for the French under 21s – I’d have snapped your hand off.
Of course, it’s not just the first team that are doing well. Our under-18s smashed Newcastle 7-2 over the weekend, and are four points off leaders Manchester City, with a game in hand, and two games against City to come. Twelve points separate second-placed Sunderland and third-placed Manchester United, and it’s exceptionally positive to see our academy producing good players once more, particularly after the asset stripping that went on in the not-too-distant future.
The under-18s are coached by Adam Asghar, who joined the club earlier in the season, and is one of a number of appointments behind the scenes on the football side of things that are quietly going about doing an exceptionally good job.
Our under-21s aren’t faring as well, however, but you’d expect that team to get stronger as players around the first team settle in and players from the 18s step up.
Of course, the comment that’s always raised around having talented under 18s – as often trotted out by Donald and Methven – was that we couldn’t do anything about them being tempted by another club. The number of promising players who departed from the youth setup was scandalous, but I do believe it’s different now.
Under Kristjaan Speakman, we’ve got a firm development plan for youngsters – a path in the first team – and according to people I know who’ve got young kids in the academy, they’re doing things brilliantly well behind the scenes.
If you’re a young player, where are you going to go at 16 or 17? A ‘bigger’ team, where you can be one of many young players who’ll never get near the first team due to the money available to spend and the pressure for immediate results, or somewhere like Sunderland where you’ll get a first-team chance?
Take striker Joe Hugill, for example, or left-back Logan Pye. Both of whom were sold to Manchester United and have been playing under 21 football – although Pye has spent the majority of the season on the sidelines.
If they’d stayed at Sunderland, both could well have made double-figure appearances this season in the championship – and probably the same last season, too.
In terms of career development, what would have served them better? At any level, I’d argue that playing first-team football is better than not, and while it’s in Manchester United’s interests to sign these young players cheaply, it’s increasingly clear by the way Premier League clubs are stockpiling youngsters that it’s absolutely not in the best interests of the individual players.
We’ve seen how Edouard Michut’s developed so far this season, Patterson, Neil, Clarke, Roberts, Hume, Ba... the list goes on and on.
If you’re at a club that’s giving first-team opportunities to 18 and 19-year-olds – hell, even 15-year-olds this season – then why would you go anywhere else?
If these players are good enough to be top Premier League players, let them prove it here. We’ve seen the career paths Henderson and Pickford have taken – and these lads are far better off joining a top-four club at 21 or 22 as a first-team player with 100 or so games under their belts, than as a 16-year-old with zero experience.
So, when you look at things across the board, it’s difficult not to feel positive about how the football club is being rebuilt under the leadership of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Juan Sartori. Yes, there will always be things that disappoint you in the moment, but the bigger picture is exceptionally bright – and we could be in for an exciting old ride.