This week we saw Lee Cattermole pick up the North East Sports Writer’s Player of the Year, a local lad whose development was overseen just 21 miles down the road at Middlesbrough. In second place was Jack Colback and in third was Grant Leadbitter, both of whom spent their formative years on Wearside before moving on to our local rivals.
It’s often suggested that we don’t produce much in the way of top talent. We do see players from the Academy of Light go on to be successful at lower levels though. League 1 and 2 clubs have taken chances on talent that we did not, for whatever reason that may be. Martyn Waghorn and Jordan Henderson have moved on to play for clubs in the top two tiers of English football. They’re relatively polarised on the spectrum, but you’re doing pretty well if you’re making a living out of football at that level.
So there are kids coming out of Sunderland and making it. I don’t know how we compare to other clubs when it comes to developing those who go on to have a career, but it is happening.
Sunderland supporters want to see local lads coming through the academy and playing for the first team. Pardon me for stating the obvious. We so desperately want them to do well that we’ll over look their obvious and expected limitations in the hope that they’ll do something special.
We can empathise with it. Practically every Sunderland supporting lad or lass on Wearside will close their eyes and dream of pulling on the red and white stripes. What would you do if you scored against The Mags at St James’ Park? What would it be like to score a last minute winner at the Satdium of Light, or Roker Park, depending on which generation you’re from?
I’m not embarrassed to admit I still dayfream about it on occasion. I’m 31 and 16 stone, but I still try and imagine how it would feel to glance a header past Tim Krul then run across the front of The Gallowgate with one hand cupping an ear, the other holding our badge to my lips. It might be a bit sad, but I’m not ashamed to admit it.
When a young local lad shows some promise, it’s only natural you want to see them involved. You can live that fantasy through them. You can enjoy them enjoying their special moment.
Sometimes this can alter rational thought. The idea of ‘chucking the kids in’ all too often mooted during a bad run. They couldn’t be much worse than this lot, could they? I guess you wouldn’t know until it was tried, but even a short term benefit for the team could have long term negative effects on the player themselves.
Obviously the scenario above is not just relevant to Sunderland. It’ll be pretty much every club up and down the country. They want to see their youth succeed. But at the top level, it’s getting harder and harder to integrate promising young players.
The Premier League is a behemoth driven by money and the desire for instant results and success. Managers are under pressure after two or three poor results. Can they put their job on the line and take a risk with young, untested players? A manager may prefer to bring a player in for a fee that has first team experience, or has played at a relatively high level in another country. You’ve got a slightly better idea of what you’re going to get from those players. Rightly or wrongly, it’s understandable why managers would rather take that chance than risk their reputation, and job, on youth.
How can this situation be resolved though? I’ve spoken before about my issues with the loan system. It’s created a traffic jam of talent in the top two divisions and it shows no signs of easing. I’d like to see the loan system scrapped in the Championship and Premier League. A player may think more carefully about their move if they knew they weren’t going to go straight out on loan from a top club, after signing for huge money.
Sure, more of these players would end up scattered around other Premier League sides. Wages would probably come down as a result. As would transfer fees, which are grossly distorted by those who can afford to waste millions with no serious repercussions.
A scrapping of the loan system in the top two divisions would make clubs be more decisive when it comes to academy talent. If they have a player they think has a chance, then they’d have to play him. If not, they’d risk losing them to another side who’d be more than willing to give them a chance of regular first team football.
Loans can be important in development for all sorts of reasons. We heard from Robbie Stockdale recently, and he suggested that they sent Liam Agnew on loan to the Conference North because they wanted to toughen him up. But if a player is good enough to perform in the top two divisions, and you know that deep down, then maybe clubs need to be put under more pressure to take that chance.
If a law was put in place that all had to abide by, then it would level the playing field. Use him or lose him.
This would certainly take some pressure away from top flight managers in this regard. You might also see clubs pushing development players into first team training more regularly, and seeing greater links between the youth set up and the first team at clubs. Managers and Head Coaches would have to pay a lot more attention to what is going on at a football club beyond the senior squad.
At the same time, there’s a lot of responsibility on football clubs to manage young players properly. You don’t know how well they’re going to do until you see them play, but the club has to ensure that their career is at the forefront of their mind. Chucking a load of kids into a side could irreversibly damage confidence if things don’t go well. Fulham are a good example in this case. Learning from mistakes and defeat is one thing, being marmalised week after a week is another entirely.
Gus Poyet has spoken recently about finding this balance, and I’m sure we’ll see a few of the Development Squad feature in the next few months when the time is right. But until major changes occur at the top of the English game, managers will continue to proceed with extreme caution.