What a year it’s been!
If someone had said that Sunderland wouldn’t be in a relegation scrap at the beginning of the season, I would’ve bitten their hand off and not only that, we’ve been extremely competitive in most of our games and there are shoots of a very talented young squad emerging.
After the madness of the Good Friday game against Hull, I’ve been reflecting on the season and it feels like a campaign of ‘what ifs?’, with all the injuries and our lack of game management.
In a way, though, I’m glad it’s happening this season because this group has shown that they’ll learn and get better.
Our injuries have been compounded due to our small squad size and I’ve often bemoaned it, although last year, I heard consistently from the powers that be that our small squad size was so that it could be ‘nimble’, and I always wondered what was meant by that.
This season, however, we’ve seen what it means in practice.
All players getting games and creating a competitive squad that pushes each other on to achieve better performances is so healthy for a team at this level. So many opportunities have arisen for some of the younger players, and that’s sped up their development.
On the flip side, we’ve seen how a few injuries can leave us up the creek without a paddle, and there may have to be an adjustment on numbers moving forward, in order not to leave us so open.
It was interesting that against Hull, we had three players (Jack Clarke, Trai Hume and Pierre Ekwah), who all had an impact on the game and who are at very different stages of their development with us.
This season, Clarke’s numbers have been very good.
When we first took him on loan during the 2021/2022 season, he was a far more frustrating player and would often drift in and out of games. His first half of the 2022/2023 season was good, but there was a huge chunk of time when he wasn’t involved, either through goals or assists.
However, his work rate and understanding of how he should play has improved and this is the whole point of our model.
If Clarke was a consistent performer, he would never have been able to leave Spurs. I’d argue that we’ll get that consistency in years to come but he’s been allowed to learn his craft and understand that he needs to stay in games more often.
This was illustrated by his tracking back and the great tackle he made towards the end of the game against Hull.
Doing the dirty work and taking more responsibility for his position within the team shows how far he’s come and if he isn’t scoring or assisting, he’s helping his teammates and working hard.
At this stage, he’s adding value through his performances, not just his numbers, as well as greater consistency.
It’ll also make him a more attractive proposition to any team that may want him in the future.
In defence, what a journey it’s been for Trai Hume since he joined the club.
He came from the Northern Irish league as an unknown, and he’s now a first team regular and arguably one of the best right backs in the league.
People talked about him being loaned out to gain experience just before Lynden Gooch’s injury led him to make an appearance for us. He didn’t take his chance but this is where our nimble squad has its advantages.
Gooch, who isn’t a right back by trade, made the position his own at the start of the season after showing some great form.
This competition for places is healthy, as long as our recruitment of individuals is bang on.
Mistakes will happen during his development, Hull being a case in point, but he needs games and I can only see him getting better and better as time goes on.
The game against Hull was Pierre Ekwah’s eighth professional fixture.
He’s young and inexperienced and it was only a week ago that he played a role in us securing a point with a clean sheet against the future champions of the league.
Seeing him being interviewed after the Burnley game was quite something.
First of all, he strikes me as a really lovely bloke and his enthusiasm for our club and especially the appreciation of the fans was great to see. We’ve got a team full of these players, who want to kickstart their careers and get better.
Fast forward to the Hull game, and one thing that struck me whilst watching on TV is that he’s built like an tank and will eventually add something to our midfield.
He plays on the turn and there were some passes that really caught my attention as he was able to start moves with ease. He was naive with his late challenge but I’d rather he makes these mistakes when there’s nothing at stake than in the future and during a more meaningful game.
These players are at different stages of their Sunderland careers, but what’s the golden thread that links them?
Time and opportunities.
At Sunderland, they’ll be given these in abundance and what a proposition we are for talented youngsters who are looking for a footballing home.
As seen in the Ekwah interview, the appeal of playing in front of massive crowds is a major pull and in Tony Mowbray, we have a head coach who has a track record of nurturing young talent, and that’s exactly what’ll continue to happen over the next few seasons.
In the light of the news that Reading have received a points deduction, Wigan again failing to pay their players and a damning report on West Brom’s financial status, it seems that any club that’s run properly in the Championship has a leg up over half the field.
Usually, I’d say that we would aim for consolidation again, but I believe we could go a little further and push on, given the current climate of clubs in financial difficulty.
The squad is still in its infancy and they’ll make mistakes, but they’ll also develop and grow and if Clarke’s progression is the benchmark for the young players we’ve invested in, we’ll be pushing for promotion within the next two years.