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Sunderland v Stoke City - Sky Bet Championship

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Sunderland’s stars of the future need a chance to shine - why not make the most of it?

Sunderland sit 17 points clear of the relegation zone with 11 games left to play. Is now as good a time as ever to start experimenting with the starting lineup, with Anderson, Jewi, Ekwah, Ba, Lihadji and Gardiner waiting in the wings?

Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Despite losing our last three games, we sit in a very comfortable position in the Championship table, 17 points clear of Blackpool who occupy the final relegation place.

And whilst we have briefly flirted with the playoff positions - and they most certainly still aren’t out of reach if we can put together a good run of results - I think most fans who can look at things objectively would probably concede that all things considered, a midtable finish for The Lads in their first season back at this level would be a good return.

I keep thinking about the best way to maximise the time that we do have left in the current campaign, though. Lots of people (inside and outside of the club) seem keen to write the season off already, and I think that whilst it’s tough to see how we’re going to win games without a focal point up top, it really doesn’t have to be this way.

Recent results have been poor and one of the key criticisms I’ve had of Tony Mowbray in that spell is that his team selection hasn’t been varied enough.

Despite having some really talented yet inexperienced young players at his disposal, he hasn’t yet decided to change things up a great deal. By and large, we’ve used the same players, game after game, and the performances haven’t been great.

But, there’s still plenty of time.

Sunderland v Fulham: Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay Photo by Martin Swinney/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

To my mind there’s no reason why we shouldn’t use this run of games between now and May as an opportunity to give our fringe players proper chances to show their worth.

And I’m not talking about 15 minute substitute appearances here and there, or giving them one start then not following that up with another, but giving them proper chances - but only if they’ve earned it, of course.

Take Jewison Bennette, for example. His road has been rougher than most, given the fact he’s so young and has had to make some huge changes to his life in order to fit in here.

He’s raw, but the talent is there. And I’ve never once watched him and thought that he hasn’t tried to maximise every opportunity he gets, even if that’s a handful of minutes at the end of a game. He always looks like he’s trying to impress, and works hard on and off the ball. He was given some game time in the U21s win over Stoke on Monday night and played a key part in most of the goals, showing that he’s eager to prove what he can do.

He’s by no means the finished product but I think at some point we have to give the boy a chance to show what he can actually do.

Given that Tony Mowbray has complained recently about not having the options to run in behind at the top end of the pitch, to me it makes perfect sense to give Jewi an opportunity to prove he can do what Joe Gelhardt has shown he cannot, and that’s play off the shoulder of the opposition defenders, causing problems with his pace and movement.

We don’t lose a great deal if it doesn’t work out, and I think it’s overall more beneficial to us than persisting with a loanee who we have no intention of signing anyways.

Sunderland v Reading - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

Another name which cropped up this week is that of Harry Gardiner, our 19-year-old in-form U21s striker who scored a hattrick on Monday night, meaning that he’s bagged seven times in just five games for Graeme Murty’s side.

It’s a big ask to see if he can step up to first team level already, but being an academy-centric football club should also mean that we reward our best youngsters for their good performances, just as we’ve done with Chris Rigg in recent months. If they’re good enough, they’re old enough, and Gardiner can’t really do much more than continually scoring goals whenever he wears a red and white shirt.

Our total lack of forward options currently means, to my mind, that he has to be considered part of the first team plans between now and the end of the season.

I’m not saying he should start games because like I say, it’s a huge ask, but what possible harm can be done by including him on the bench down at Norwich?

If we need a striker, it means we’ve got one there ready to come on. He’s the same age and even older than some of the other players who make the matchday squads, so it’s not as though he’ll struggle to fit in.

I think it’s a no-brainer - regardless of what anyone says about whether he’s ready or not, my counter-argument to that would be that most of this current squad is inexperienced and young, and that shouldn’t necessarily count against any of them - Gardiner included. Timing is key, and whilst I conceded earlier in the season that not thrusting Max Thompson into the spotlight was possibly the right move, now seems like a more opportune moment to give these Lads the experience and chances that they need in a first team environment.

Harry Gardiner, who has 7 goals in 5 games for Sunderland U21s

We have to be open-minded, all over the pitch.

Joe Anderson was signed from Everton in January as a player with future first team potential, but with so many injuries to our left-sided defenders it presents him with an opportunity to show Tony Mowbray what he can do. Aji Alese, Dennis Cirkin and Niall Huggins can’t seem to stay fit, and perhaps now is the time to let Anderson have a go.

He was signed because he can play left back and left centre half, and on the back of a string of woeful defensive performances I’d be more than happy to see him get the chance to play in the first team.

Sunderland v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Pierre Ekwah seems to be more trusted than some of his younger counterparts by Tony Mowbray as he’s made a number of appearances from the substitute’s bench, yet we still haven’t seen him start a game in the Championship.

Everyone is well aware of our issues in midfield, particularly from a physical and defensive standpoint, so will there ever be a better opportunity this season to let him prove his worth?

And given Amad’s drop-off in form (and, like Gelhardt, the fact he’s not really our player), wouldn’t it make sense to make better use of Isaac Lihadji and Abdoullah Ba?

These aren’t mugs, they’re talented boys who arrived at Sunderland with unbelievable pedigree, graduating from some of the top academies in France and through the French national team system. Ba in particular has had to be very patient in waiting for ‘proper’ chances in the first team, and we’ve only seen Lihadji a handful of times off the bench.

Supporters are excited to see what Lihadji can actually do, particularly after his performance against Reading, and whilst I understand Tony Mowbray’s concerns about his poor grasp of the English language, let’s not forget that half of our team also speak French.

I’m not claiming that I have the answers to all of our problems, more so that I think we can really maximise the amount of minutes we’ve got left between now and the end of the season in more ways than one, and that we don’t have to think and feel so negatively about everything.

Contrary to what we’ve been told, I don’t think that there’s just one way that this team can play, and that we have players at our disposal that can freshen up the lineup, keep things exciting, and re-engage supporters with the overall point of ‘the project’.

Will we see it happen? Let’s just wait and see, I guess - although, I’d be massively disappointed if we don’t make the most of things and give vital experience out to talented young players who sorely need it if they are ever going to have an impact at Sunderland.


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