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Roker Roundtable: How well have Sunderland’s young players acquitted themselves this season?

During the 2022/2023 season, we’ve given more minutes to players under the age of twenty three than any other Championship club. We asked our writers for their thoughts on how it’s worked out

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

Andrew Smithson says…

We’ve been going down this route for a couple of years now and it’s great to see it paying off.

We’ve got lads in the team who are young enough to still want to improve but are already fairly experienced and have shown enough to suggest that they won’t be overawed.

Dan Neil and Anthony Patterson are great examples of this.

Both of them have been superb this season and it was great to see Patto celebrating on the pitch at Preston on Monday with his understudies and coach.

That unit seems to be working well together as we kept another clean sheet despite the constant changes in the back four and the dreadful weather. It shows just how comfortable Patterson is at this level, so clearly they’re putting the work in.

It’s also noticeable how smart he is in some situations and the way he slows things down a touch when required suggests you don’t have to have been playing for years in order to contribute.

Neil, meanwhile, has shown an increasing maturity since Corry Evans’ injury.

It’s meant a change to his role but after an iffy opening few minutes at Deepdale, he really stepped up and had an influence both defensively and going forward. He’s always had quality on the ball, but the sprint back and slide tackle that he pulled off later in the first half typified his development and workrate.

Local boys or those who’ve come through the ranks may have an extra reason to put a shift in, but we’re seeing similar levels of desire from the rest of the squad, too.

Giving youngsters a proper chance at senior level after they may have felt overlooked or lost elsewhere seems to be working very well, and I’d much rather watch them try and grow with us than see the club give minutes to journeymen who’ve already peaked and may be going the other way, as we’ve done in the past.

Instead of just taking whoever’s available and ending up with a mishmash, we seem to be be building a squad and establishing a philosophy that can adapt and take us places over time, and that’s hugely encouraging.

We’ve heard this type of talk before, but the stats now prove just how committed the club is to implementing a forward thinking approach.

Pierre Ekwah looks to be the next one to go down this path and to perform the way he did against North End, having barely played at senior level, was sensational.

You could see at full time that he was drinking the atmosphere in, and it feeds back to giving talent an opportunity. He’s dedicated his life to becoming a professional and is now turning out in big games in front of big crowds.

I was gutted when Ekwah saw his second half shot saved as it would’ve been an excellent goal and a nice way to cap off his day.

Alex Pritchard was a fraction off scoring a worldie too, and as a senior player he also deserves credit. When he did score it was a clever bit of play and he’s been very good when coming off the bench lately.

In order for the young lads to thrive, they need good pros around them and it appears as if our older names are on board and are setting a good example.

The one upside to all our injuries is that it means we’ve had to throw certain individuals in at the deep end, even if it was slightly earlier than anticipated.

Joe Anderson looks like he may now have to be involved on Saturday, but if that’s the case, it isn’t an issue. We’re creating an environment where such players are being encouraged to do well and won’t be hung out to dry if things don’t go to plan straightaway.

Such a system has got us to a position where we have nothing to lose, and there’s talk of us being ripped apart should we go up, but I wouldn’t be so sure.

The rate of growth has been phenomenal and rather than the months and possibly seasons we thought it might take to see our potential realised, we’re actually seeing improvement game on game. We’ve also responded to the challenges well thus far, so even if we aren’t quite there yet, I’d be confident the side would at least give it a go.

However, the beauty of our situation is that if we don’t go up, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, and there’s enough evidence to suggest that these youngsters will continue to improve either way.

I think that fans of other clubs will see our willingness to go with such a young side and the benefits it’s brought, and will want to know why their club isn’t going down the same route.

The scouting and coaching has to be in place to back it up, but there are a lot of positives to our current approach and the players and staff deserve credit for how they’re implementing it.

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

Dan Harrison says…

Moving to a more progressive model of developing and refining young talent is a system that Sunderland fans would’ve mistaken for video game semantics if you’d asked them at any point over the last decade, yet here we are.

By plucking disgruntled starlets from clubs and allowing them to coexist and develop at the same pace seems like something only destined to fail, yet we find ourselves with the potential of back to back promotions in a mere two years, since Kristjaan Speakman introduced a new footballing philosophy to the club.

Personally, I think it’s an outstanding achievement as they’ve clearly put vast amounts of thought into their choice of transfers, not only in the way that these lads play on the pitch but also in the traits and characteristics they display off it.

Watching a core of young players develop together and at the same pace is a true sight to behold when everything clicks, and Sunderland have managed to balance dozens of spinning plates at once.

With the incremental development of many of our young stars, although we may never see them all hit their full potential in a Sunderland shirt, I’m more than down for the ride and it’s certainly a roller coaster with many more ups than downs coming in the near future.

Tom Albrighton says…

Sunderland are playing ‘Football Manager’, but in real life, and nothing reinforces that notion more than adopting the mantra of ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’.

It’s always been a desire of mine, and many others, to see a more youthful Sunderland run out, and although nobody necessarily asked for the ‘teens in jeans’ approach, we’re all delighted to have it.

The signing of up-and-coming youth internationals who’ve gone on to dazzle and delight, as well as winning many plaudits isn’t just a benefit on the pitch, but off the pitch too.

Long gone are the days of coming to Sunderland for a final paycheque and to wind down slowly. It’s now a destination for youthful exuberance and an ambition to reach as high as possible.

As a result of this, we’ve played with a reckless abandon and fearlessness that can only be harnessed by youth, and we’ve excelled as a result.

As the club enters a new dawn, it’s the young, hungry and ambitious who’ll drive us forward, and that fearlessness and that drive is something the club haven’t just stumbled upon- it’s been specifically harvested and will continue to do so.

This means that for the first time in almost a decade, Sunderland is a club that’s going places.

Preston North End v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Martin Swinney/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images


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