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Roker Roundtable: Have Sunderland ever placed this much emphasis on young talent?

The club’s transfer policy is very much centred around young and developing players, so we asked our writers whether they could remember another period in the club’s history that compares to the current one

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Gav says…

What we’re currently seeing at Sunderland is completely unprecedented, in that we’re totally gearing the football club towards becoming centred completely around young players.

Obviously in the past we’ve had Sunderland sides that have relied heavily on youth, but never because it was the plan to do so. More often than not, it was down to budgetary restraints, with the youth team supplementing the more experienced players at any given time.

Now, though, this is very different. We’re purposely driving towards making this team as young as possible, and it’s with good reason.

For one thing, young players are hungry.

They have fewer distractions off the field, they’re career focused, they’re ambitious and they have room to improve. That creates an environment where everyone is together, united in becoming better, and working together to progress. In fact, progress of your peers is championed, so it’s rather unique.

Then there’s the side which won’t please many Sunderland fans but is something that has to be kept in mind - if you’re going to become self sustaining over the long term, you need to be generating income from player sales, and you don’t do that with older players.

When signing lads at the ages of 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21, we’re also backing ourselves to improve them to the point where clubs further up the food chain want to spend lots of money on them.

It all makes a hell of a lot of sense and I absolutely love that the club has chosen this path, because to me it seems foolproof.

We’ll have the odd dud, we’ll occasionally stumble, and we may not win every week but what we’ll see is a team constantly improving before our eyes, and that’s very exciting.

For me, this is the most exciting period in my time as a Sunderland supporter, and I can’t wait to see where things go from here.

Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Joseph Tulip says…

The period which stands out is the 1997/1998 season, when Peter Reid signed several young players and after a stuttering start to the campaign, threw several of them into the team alongside a couple of young lads who were already on the fringes.

It led to a back four of Darren Holloway, Darren Williams, Jody Craddock and Michael Gray. Further forward, the likes of Allan Johnson and Kevin Phillips were both twenty four, and it laid the foundations for a successful side which went on to win promotion the following season, and also finished seventh in successive seasons in the top flight.

We also signed a young Thomas Sorensen and Gavin McCann during this period and it looked as though youth development was gradually becoming our policy.

Perhaps a few other younger signings which didn’t work out, such as Chris Byrne, Neil Wainwright, Gerry Harrison and Carsten Fredgaard, saw a gradual turning point as Reid eventually returned to established campaigners, both old and new.

Indeed, this period saw existing senior players such as Andy Melville, Kevin Ball and Martin Scott experience a late resurgence at the club, as well as the arrivals of experienced pros like Steve Bould.

Essentially, investment in youth at the turn of the millennium, despite us having established an academy, was sidelined in pursuit of short term fixes as we tried, eventually in vain, to retain our status as a Premier League side.

Since then, we’ve had numerous strategies and of course, several highly successful young players with the likes of Jordan Henderson and Jordan Pickford commanding high transfer fees on their way to international stardom.

However, the current era is the first time I’ve seen Sunderland really look serious about building a team around youth.

It’s still early days, but times have changed since Reid and Bob Murray’s new dawn, which came as we moved into the Stadium of Light. Back then, sporting directors weren’t taken seriously and the only team who really focused on youth was Manchester United.

Football finances and club structures are in a different sphere now, with recruitment specialists key to a trusted formula.

Now we have a man in Kristjaan Speakman who came with a track record. We’re operating a model similar to those at several other clubs who’ve used it to successfully establish themselves in the top flight, and we’ve already made huge strides under this system in recent years.

In short, we know what we’re doing, we can trust it, and youth is no longer a luxurious experiment or at worst, a gamble.

I don’t think our current system will be abandoned as it was a generation ago, and nor should it be. Ultimately, it’ll be judged on economics and footballing success, but long may it continue.

Phil West says…

I genuinely can’t remember a period in our history when there was this much faith placed in young players- and my love affair with Sunderland began back in 1996.

Of course, there have always been plenty of promising footballers who’ve made their way in red and white, and many of them achieved success whilst playing for the club.

From Michael Gray, Sam Aiston and Michael Bridges in the 1990s to the likes of Grant Leadbitter and Jordan Henderson in more recent times, we’ve always backed youth wherever possible and with varying degrees of success, but this is different. This is serious, and it’s tremendously exciting.

So far, this summer’s transfer business suggests that there’ll be absolutely no deviation from the framework that’s been in place since early 2021, but in truth, did we really expect there to be?

Kristjaan Speakman has laid out his vision, it’s clearly being backed by Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, and it’s brought about an enormous cultural shift at the club.

People may mock the notion of a ‘model’, but the reality is they have a plan, they’re sticking to it with absolute conviction, and so far, it’s working well.

Instead of shopping in the bargain bin for free agents who nobody else would touch or journeymen seeking to top up their retirement fund, we’re now zeroing in on exciting talent from around the globe and bringing them to Wearside with a view to helping the club to achieve future success, as well as allowing them to develop as footballers.

We’re constructing a squad that’s filled with attacking potential, some real guile in midfield and greater defensive depth. The ceilings of many of these lads are sky high, and they’re only going to improve, such is the nature of the environment in which they’re playing.

As Gav says, player sales will be key, as reinvesting the money generated is how we guarantee financial stability at the club, and balancing that with the desire for success will be crucial.

I have faith that we’ll be able to deal with that when it happens, however, and that those making the key decisions will continue to put the club’s future prosperity and aim of long-term success at the top of their list of priorities.

There’s such a buzz around the club at the moment, and long may it continue!

Cardiff City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Kevin Barker says…

The last time I remember seeing Sunderland back young players was during the emergence of Micky Gray, Craig Russell and Martin Smith (son of Pele).

I used to go down my local park and try and replicate Smith’s tricks, and was hooked after my first game under the floodlights.

Back then it was home grown and out of necessity as money wasn’t available to bring in quality proven players.

This time around, after a whirlwind first season back in the Championship, at times playing free flowing champagne football the club seem to be building on the success of the young players and look to be sticking to their guns by promoting and developing young talent.

This is exciting and brave as it would be all too easy to go and pick up two or three experienced campaigners and play it safe. I’m looking forward to seeing the new lads play and hopefully take us to the next level.

I hope it inspires the kids starting their journey supporting the Lads to practice to be like their heroes - and with a bit of luck, we will be back in the promotion mix again come May.


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