Given the way our football operates nowadays, I can’t help but grimace when I think “what might have been” when it comes to some of the young players we allowed to escape our grasp during our years in League One.
Sam Greenwood is a Premier League player with Leeds, Joe Hugill has been killing it with Manchester United, Luca Stephenson captained Liverpool’s U18s side, Bali Mumba has been tearing it up for Plymouth and is starting to realise the potential which took him to Norwich in the first place, Josh Coburn has scored goals for Middlesbrough in the Championship and against Premier League opposition in the cups, Francis Okoronkwo has made the bench for Everton’s first team and is one of their most highly-rated young players, and Logan Pye was snapped up by Manchester United too.
Oh, and don’t forget about Josh Maja - had he been kept around I’m sure we wouldn’t have spent four years in the third tier.
It’s fair to say that our prolonged stay in League One had a detrimental effect on Sunderland’s Academy, something we are still feeling the effects of and are likely to continue suffering from for a number of years yet, particularly when we see some of the names I’ve mentioned above turning out in the Premier League and Championship over the coming years.
We must draw a line under that, though.
We can’t dwell on it. It’s immensely disappointing that we lost so many good kids, but we can’t do anything about that now and instead what we do in the future is important.
The fact so many of our best youngsters are playing in the first team currently means that the next few years should be pretty interesting when it comes to how we achieve at youth levels, and in turn, how many of these boys start to filter through into the first team.
Given we’re now in the final stages of the season, it’s likely we’ll see some of the best players from that lower age group getting a chance over the coming weeks, further strengthening Sunderland’s position as the best place for young players to come, learn their craft and then become serious first team players at a big club, on a big stage.
Tom Watson and Chris Rigg are two that are gaining attention for all the right reasons.
Watson played for England U17s last week and is making an impact in our U21s as well as the 18s, whilst Rigg has already bagged first team minutes and is the captain of England U16s.
And whilst the results achieved by our U21s team this season haven’t been particularly impressive, given that so many of the best players we had at that age group were snatched away in previous years, that’s to be expected.
Next year, however, things could and should change for the better.
Our U18s side are currently top of the Premier League and, if they manage to beat fellow title hopefuls Manchester City in a few weeks, you’d imagine that they’ll get the job done.
They battered Newcastle away from home 7-2 last week, which just shows the gulf in class between the academies of the two clubs, which is interesting given we basically pick from the same pool of players in the local area.
We’re ahead of Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton and Boro, and have accumulated more points than any other U18s side in the country so far - including Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham and Southampton in the southern section.
To even be competing against these teams is immense.
Manchester City’s U18s team is expensively assembled, with players from all over the globe representing them having been recruited by their multi-million pound youth scouting network.
Sunderland’s team is, in the main, made up of local players who have been with the club for a number of years. They’re a credit to our football club and further proof we’re doing things the right way on Wearside.
You can go further down the age groups and see the same level of progress and consistency. We’re winning league titles and cup trophies at every age group, and there’s now a standard within the football club being set by these teams and their coaches which ensure that we will continue to develop top talent for years to come.
The ultimate goal of the academy is to provide the first team with players that can not only contribute, but also potentially earn us a few quid down the line, and given the way things are looking you can only assume that things will be in a very healthy position for years to come.
I know I’ve said that we’re seeing rapid improvement in the academy, but you could also argue that the level of talent has always been there - the issue has been the environment at first team level, and their lack of willingness to provide proper chances to our best youngsters.
That’s perhaps why so many of the best kids moved on - because there was no clear pathway here, and convincing them that staying with Sunderland was the best thing for their careers was tricky.
Clearly, though, the environment is very different.
Sunderland is the place to be, even for the best kids locally, who may see the team up the road doing well with all their millions and feel tempted.
This is the club to be at if you want to make it, if you want a proper chance, and you want to see a clear pathway to first team football. That, combined with the outstanding talent that we already have in the club and developing through the system, is very exciting to me.
The future is bright at the Academy of Light, and I can’t wait to see how the next few years pan out.