Graeme Atkinson argues experience is the missing ingredient if Sunderland are to meet expectations in the Championship.

Sheffield United away was always going to be a tough ask. The challenge for Sunderland was then made rather more problematic by going down to 10 men early in the match.

Yet, from that unfortunate set of circumstances, positives can still be drawn. For starters, some entertaining football was on show by the Lads and it is clear Alex Neil has his team well drilled.

Indeed to have had Paul Heckingbottom’s men eager for the final whistle, us having clawed a goal back in the second half, all while playing 60 minutes with a numerical disadvantage, is testament to both Neil’s coaching and our players’ ability to give their all.

That said, player commitment sometimes comes at a cost.

With injuries now to Dan Ballard, Danny Batth, Corry Evans and Carl Winchester, along with a suspended Dan Neil, it’s fair to say the Black Cats’ squad is, even at this early stage, creaking.

The recent defeat also brought into further focus the lack of strength in depth Neil has at his disposal, especially from the bench.

That has already been touched on here. But, if we examine the player profile of subs used at Bramall Lane, we begin to more clearly see Neil’s challenge. Nearly all of his five substitutes were not only lacking Championship experience but also senior football appearances in general, especially when compared against United’s changes made on the night.

Sunderland substitutes – 17/8/2022
Player Age Championship apps EPL apps
Bailey Wright 30 128 0
Jay Matete 21 0 0
Jack Diamond 22 0 0
Trai Hume 20 0 0
Aji Alese 21 0 0

Four of the five above players have notched up league appearances lower down the pyramid, but we need players who can hold their own in the Championship.

Jack Diamond has just concluded two loan spells at League Two side Harrogate Town, in addition to his 29 League One appearances with Sunderland. Aside from Bailey Wright, the Gateshead-born winger had the most experience of Wednesday’s used substitutes.

Jay Matete predominantly featured for League One Fleetwood Town and National League side Grimsby Town before we captured his signature in January. Aji Alese has a total of only 12 senior appearances across two loan spells away from parent club West Ham United (with Accrington Stanley and Cambridge United respectively) whilst Trai Hume signed in January from Linfield FC. In short, the ask of these lads is to make a big step up.

It is fair, too, that they have the opportunity. Yet what is stark is the sheer number, with limited experience, all seeking to achieve make that big step at the same time.

These and others with similar profiles are all being relied upon to positively impact a game from the bench – in the second tier of English football. To deploy them so effectively suggests he is maximising their abilities at this stage of their development.

The level of experience Sheffield United were able to bring on to the field represented, in many ways, a different league.

Sheffield United substitutes – 17/8/2022
Player Age Championship apps EPL apps
John Fleck 30 127 61
Oli McBurnie 26 30 59
Reda Khadra 21 27 1

These statistics, crude as they may seem, highlight the gulf in experience between the benches on the night.

Some may argue a direct comparison with Sheffield United’s substitutes is unfair. The Black Cats have obviously just won promotion from League One while the Blades are still in receipt of parachute payments from the Premier League. However, while both clubs have arrived in this league from different directions, we nevertheless need to find a way to compete on a level playing field now, regardless of recent history.

Crucially, even without Wednesday night’s comparison, the point is valid: for Sunderland AFC to survive in the Championship, some guile and experience is now required. During the remainder of the transfer window the focus must be to supplement the lack of experience within the current group with proven talent. In fact, in this writer’s mind, it is essential to the club’s season that Kristjaan Speakman does just that.

There are currently a great deal of young players with limited experience being relied upon at once. Some will adapt quickly and grow with the club. Others will not.

The trick now for Sunderland is to find the right blend of youthful inexperience and proven talent. There are two weeks left to do so.