After triggering a one-year extension to Elliot Embleton’s contract this January, Sunderland patted the youngster on the head and sent him off to Blackpool on loan.
You might say it was the making of him.
Yet, at the time supporters had mixed views on whether it was a sensible move. The Durham-born academy player had not long returned to full fitness, so surely this was his opportunity to finally break into the first team, with a regular run of games?
Great at driving from midfield, two-footed and decent on set-piece delivery. We appeared to be crying out for those abilities having suffered from the slow, ponderous build up play from the personnel left behind.
It did seem a head scratcher.
As if in response to the puzzlement, Sporting Director, Kristjaan Speakman set out club’s reason behind the loan spell: “Elliot requires a little more opportunity than we can provide at this moment and its an important period for him following the time he missed through injury. We have a clear plan for his progress and felt that under Neil (Critchley), Blackpool was a great chance for him to gain more experience at this level, in a different environment.”
Hindsight shows the ‘clear plan’ has been an effective strategy. Embleton’s performances thus far this season evidence the specific aims Speakman set the lad whilst in the North West, are now paying dividends.
Fast forward to the present and two other academy players have now gone out on loan, having found themselves in a similar position to Embleton.
Once again, these moves left some scratching their heads.
Josh Hawkes and Jack Diamond (on loan to Tranmere Rovers and Harrogate Town respectively) were knocking on the door this season. Hawkes played a full 90 minutes against Port Vale in the EFL Cup and took his goal well, a message for Lee Johnson to sit up and take notice. Diamond, having featured regularly during the last campaign, coming on as sub instead of Chris McGuire, has also started this season brightly. His recent assist for Aiden O’Brien’s hat-trick was sublime against Blackpool.
Reflecting on Diamond’s appearances last season it’s even clearer that this was in order to gain him valuable experience, perhaps even in the knowledge that this could risk the shorter-term benefit of the club. But, that experience isn’t always best served at home.
A time served apprenticeship with the academy does not automatically mean a player graduates to the starting eleven. This loan strategy for newly ‘qualifieds’ is instead the desired route for a more rounded and developed talent.
And this is the crux of it.
Those responsible for bringing through the youngsters appear to very much have the long game in mind. Happy to take the risk of slower progress for the club in the short term in the hope of a higher trajectory over the long, Speakman et al are now deploying a sensible and sustainable approach to player development.
If there is a confidence that the young players at Sunderland have the ability to develop into top professionals, then nurturing that talent over years in a calm and patient manner is a risk but a welcome one in my eyes. In turn, assuming all goes to plan, the reward for this strategy should see greater success for the club.
Early signs are positive. Just this weekend Hawkes got an assist and Diamond made a lovely driving run through midfield exposing the opposition’s defence resulting in a straight red for the hapless defender. Something to build on indeed.
After the Embleton loan worked out so well (yes, even though Blackpool were promoted) the club have certainly earned some trust over the loan deals for the current crop of youngsters.
It worked once, let’s hope it does so again.