The kids aren’t alright? Questions raised about Sunderland’s under-23s after EFL Trophy defeat to Oldham Athletic

Lee Johnson fielded a young side against Oldham as Sunderland's defence of the EFL Trophy came to an end - Gary Foster discusses whether the current crop of U23s have a bright future on Wearside

There is an old, and very worn, sporting adage “If they are good enough, then they are old enough”.

It’s something I firmly believe in and Sunderland manager Lee Johnson should be applauded for their belief in giving youth its chance to shine.

But what do you do when that opportunity isn’t grasped? Where does that leave the plan to give youngsters a pathway to the first team?

It’s unfair to call young players out after one game, where the tactics and formation didn’t quite suit.

And, if I’m being honest the whole set-up for the EFL Trophy defeat to League Two Oldham Athletic felt a bit like it had been put together on the back of a fag packet and then just hope for the best.

I’m Johnson would say there was far more to it than that, and there probably was, that’s just how it felt.

Not that I’m blaming him for the absolutely dreadful display that was served up against Oldham.

Yes, the buck stops with the manager or head coach, but let’s face it the injuries we have been hit with clearly forced his hand.

It was nice to win the Papa Johns Trophy last season, but in the grand scheme of things this can’t and shouldn’t be a priority.

Cue the shouts from the “you should try to win every game” brigade and while you don’t set up to get beat, it is surely about the bigger picture.

Promotion is the be all and end all for me, and surely that has to be how the club is looking at it.

With each season we spend at this level, then the more we become embedded in League One and the harder it gets to get out of this division.

Anyway, I digress. The Oldham result and performance did, however, raise questions about whether or not some of our Under-23s can make the step up.

As previously stated it is harsh to judge on one game, but from the admittedly very limited displays I have to say I have my doubts.

Johnson has indicated that injuries to senior players may bring opportunities for the younger players as he tries to use them instead of looking to bring in free agents.

He said: “There are people out there (in the free agent market), but we’ve also got our U23s, don’t forget.

“We’ve worked hard to integrate those guys, and these young players have got a serious opportunity right now.

“The one thing with the young players is that they’ll fight and they’ll run. They’re a fit group, because we’ll work them harder than any squad for exactly this scenario.

“It is a big, big jump from U23 football to the top end of League One football and they’ll have to be at their absolute peak to handle it.

“At the moment, we’re so short at first-team level that we have got to trust them and throw them in.”

Personally, on what I have seen they aren’t ready to handle it.

Most of the players on display against Oldham were in the early twenties. Should they have already made the grade by now?

A season or two they will be over the U23 threshold, and what then? Will they go the same as so many others who we have brought into the academy, the likes of Roarie Deacon now at Maidstone United, Billy Knott currently with Bowes and Pitsea or more recently Ruben Sammut now at Dulwich Hamlet?

The fact remains, that in terms of rising stars who have come all the way through the ranks, the previous regime sold the ‘family silver’.

So many players who could have been Sunderland stars of the future were sold off for peanuts, but that’s a story for another article.

We have been lucky that the superb Dan Neil and Elliott Embleton weren’t cashed in on.

These two are of course proof that if you are good enough you are old enough.

Sadly, they appear to be in the minority.

And while I would love to be proved wrong by so many of the U23s who should be knocking on the first-team door, for this writer it would appear that free agents and the January transfer window look to be the safer bet.