Sunderland’s King And A Jack Have Left Lee Johnson In A Flush

As the Black Cats' season continues to implode a talking point can be found in the embers - Chris Maguire vs Jack Diamond. Graeme Atkinson considers the pros and cons of youth against experience

“There has to be a pathway for young players, and there has also got to be honesty and sincerity with the seniors,” Lee Johnson.

There have been a fair few column inches written around midfielder Chris Maguire recently and with some reasonable justification. At a time when Sunderland’s automatic play-off journey has slid off the road in catastrophic slow motion, his omission on matchday has been a source of confusion for some and downright frustration for others.

This season, the facts are that of the 13 league games the Scot, once lauded by fans as The King, has either not started or missed entirely, Sunderland have only won two. Is he truly as influential on overall play as this stat suggests? If he is, at 32 years of age and seemingly unlikely to be given another contract, should his appearance come at the expense of youth development?

Increasingly, when trying to unravel this dilemma, Jack Diamond’s name has begun to wrap itself around the same debate. Certainly, if anyone has been brave enough to sift through the dying embers of the last six or seven games, they will be acquainted with the Jack Diamond v Chris Maguire subplot.  Against Blackpool, such was the latest twist, neither were used. 

Perhaps the Maguire/Diamond ‘story arc’ isn’t on par with Line of Duty’s apparent entertainment value upon the nation but *checks notes*, ‘Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the wee donkey’, it’s worth us digging a little deeper here.

Looking at the matter analytically, given Maguire’s higher goals and assists per game ratio, his absence is surely attributed to the promotion of youth development at the club. Rumours of fallouts between Maguire and Johnson can be put to one side. In all likelihood Kristjaan Speakman’s influence is taking effect here.

We know from his time at Birmingham City, Speakman champions the importance of promoting academy players ensuring a clear path to the first team. That was his strength there and presumably one of the reasons he was brought here. Quite what that means for Ollie Younger’s long term future when he is unable to get game team in the midst of an injury crisis is anyone’s guess.

Yet, Louis-Dreyfus will be keen for Speakman to replicate the success he had in the Midlands. The likes of Demarai Gray, Nathan Redmond and Jude Bellingham are testament to that. Diamond may never reach those heights on Wearside but his chances will certainly be hampered further if that route from bench to pitch is closed off at a crucial stage in his development.

It’s clear from the recent contract extension the club rate the youngster, and as you’d expect he was thrilled to commit until 2024:

“I’ve broken into the first team this season under the new head coach and I’m pleased to be rewarded with a new contract, but my goal stays the same and that’s to play at the highest level I possibly can with this club.”

Yet, the long game doesn’t help us in the here and now.

Despite having a fingernail on the ladder of automatic promotion, Sunderland couldn’t fully grasp their chance and even play-off chances now look tentative. The accusatory finger hangs over the whole team when attempting to unpick the reasons for the collapse. It’s unfair to single players out, especially the younger ones. But, for all the flashes of quality from Diamond in a red and white shirt he hasn’t been able to assert a huge influence as the season concludes. That is just the fact of the matter. At 21 years of age, perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect that from him.

Flashback to the Crewe game to understand the impact Chris Maguire could’ve had. Sure, there have been occasions he has frustrated since signing from Bury. Yet, something-from-nothing-moments are consistently in Maguire’s locker – and in big moments too. Diamond has yet to find that ability consistently. But he won’t if he doesn’t get the game time.

Yes, it’s the classic catch 22.

Historically, Sunderland have been reluctant to throw youth at a problem given the perennial struggles to escape relegation. The argument against their inclusion usually centres on the youngsters not having the experience to deal with big pressure games. A bad run of matches can ruin a career before it truly begins. In that vein, there are those that would say promotion from League One is of the utmost importance and as such the best players need to be on the field.

Therefore, if relegation battles aren’t the ideal moment and nor is a promotion challenge, when is the optimum time to blood the academy products? When should Diamond get his chance over Maguire?

The answer? Rightly or wrongly, under Louis-Dreyfus, promotion of youth development is a key component to the long-term strategy and Speakman is the main architect. If that is the club’s aim from the outset, by virtue of that, the ideal time has to be always – now.

However, faith and patience have been in plentiful supply over the years on Wearside and this is simply likely to be a further test of that resolve should we not get out of League One quickly.

Graeme Atkinson