The Place To Be?
I’ve said for a long time now that if you’re a young player looking to make your name in the game, there isn’t a better club to play for right now than Sunderland.
Much is made about the size of the club, the facilities, the size of the crowds we get home and away and the potential for us to become successful down the line - and for most of my life as a Sunderland supporter it’s felt like even mentioning those things is empty, because we’ve rarely had a team on the pitch or in the boardroom which matches it.
Not now, though. Sunderland’s current owner and the leadership group have recognised that for our club to stand out in a competitive environment, we have to harness our greatest assets in order to build a successful football team - and that means offering young players a unique situation that they otherwise won’t be afforded elsewhere.
There isn’t another team in the country that is the size of Sunderland that can offer young players a genuine pathway to the first team, playing attractive football in an environment where creativity is encouraged and mistakes aren’t punished.
There are plenty of huge clubs in the Premier League, but with the sheer amount of money involved in playing in the greatest league in the world, it's almost impossible for a top-flight club to provide the type of environment that we can. And if you drop into the Championship, it’s precisely the same - we’ve got an infrastructure that is set up to allow the best young players to thrive.
Ambition Attracts Ambition
It’s alright saying that though, but there has to be proof and after the last two seasons we finally have it. We fielded the youngest side in the Championship last season and gave game-time to players like Jack Clarke, Dennis Cirkin, Dan Neil, Dan Ballard, Trai Hume, Anthony Patterson and countless others that they wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere.
This clearly caught the attention of the famed Bellingham family and in particular, the head of the family, dad Mark, who is very particular about where his boys play and who looks after their careers.
I had heard as far back as 2020 when Kristjaan Speakman first took the job that he had made it one of his missions to bring a then-14-year-old Jobe Bellingham to Sunderland from his old club Birmingham, owing to the fantastic relationship he and first-team coach Mike Dodds have with the Bellingham family.
Lots has gone on since then and Jobe’s rise to first-team prominence at Birmingham City and becoming the captain of the England U18s side has affirmed the belief that he is set to have a fantastic career in his own right, away from whatever his brother is doing right now for the England national side and at his new club Real Madrid.
For Jobe, capitalising on his potential at the earliest possible opportunity is crucial, and there isn’t a finer club in the land than Sunderland AFC for him to do just that.
When he starts pre-season in July he starts on an even footing with every single member of the first-team squad, and the fact that he’s not even old enough to order a pint at the bar yet matters not. At Sunderland, all that matters is if you’re good enough, and age is irrelevant - and given that he’s already had a season in the Championship, you have to think that he’ll get plenty of first-team opportunities over the next year if he works hard enough.
He no doubt uses his brother as an example and aspires to be just as successful as he is - perhaps even playing one day alongside him in the England senior squad.
He’s ambitious, and for ambitious players, you need to be at a club that matches your ambition.
In the past, we’ve been unable to do that and it led to Sunderland losing academy graduates Jordan Henderson and Jordan Pickford - but these are different times, and for Jobe and countless others that occupy first-team squad numbers at our club, they find themselves playing for a football team that wants to take every player with them on their journey back to the top flight.
We’ve set the standard in the future
The early signings of Nectarios Triantis and Jobe Bellingham, plus each of the other ambitious moves made in the previous two seasons, have set the standard for where the club wants to position itself in the transfer market.
For talented young players with lots of options on where to head this summer, you have to be looking at what is going on at Sunderland and wanting to be a part of it.
The only thing we haven’t proved is our ability to shift players onto bigger and better things, but that will come with time. The current model exists to recruit talented players for relatively low fees, develop them into top-flight-ready footballers and then move them on to clubs further up the food chain, netting ourselves a healthy transfer fee and giving the players we allow to leave the chance to play for league titles and bumper contracts.
In the Premier League, there’s only really Brighton and Brentford doing what we’re doing, albeit on a bigger scale with more time behind their respective projects, but at least with coming to Sunderland in the Championship you’re almost guaranteed to play week in, week out, and for any young player it’s the gaining of meaningful experience which counts the most.
We’ve set the standard, and I’m genuinely salivating at the prospect of what is to come before the transfer window shuts on September 1st.