TEN OF Sunderland’s rookie academy products returned to Wearside yesterday having spent a week in South Korea under Martin O’Neill’s watchful eye.
The Echo’s Chris Young spoke to Sunderland’s new reserve team coach Kevin Ball on the challenge now awaiting the youngsters as they look to make the seismic leap to the first-team.
DURING the breathless opening months of his Sunderland reign, the long-term prospects at the Academy of Light fell a distance down Martin O’Neill’s priority list.
With the Black Cats perched precariously above the drop zone on his succession and the January transfer window on the horizon, O’Neill’s immediate task was ensuring an underachieving Sunderland side had the mettle to climb the table.
O’Neill was not blinkered enough to completely ignore the rookies in the reserves – plucking James McClean from the second string and handing him the opportunity to begin his zero to hero fairytale.
But those who were either too raw or too physically under-developed to make an immediate impression in the Premier League, inevitably had to occupy a spot in the shadows of O’Neill’s mind.
O’Neill was happy to concur with the recommendations of then reserve team coach Keith Bertschin on the subject of loan moves for Sunderland’s youngsters and those temporarily plying their trade away from Wearside reached double figures by the Spring.
But calm has arrived at the Stadium of Light after the whirlwind of O’Neill’s arrival and time has granted him the licence to make a more measured assessment of Sunderland’s prospects and garner which of them made progress during their respective loan moves.
Billy Knott, Louis Laing, John Egan, Jordan Pickford, Ben Wilson, Ryan Noble, Adam Reed, Craig Lynch, Blair Adams and Roarie Deacon all faced the 12,000 mile round trip to South Korea last week after Sunderland’s first-team squad was depleted by injuries and international absentees.
Six of those featured in the second Peace Cup clash with Groningen, but inevitably, the bulk of them will now return to the familiar surroundings of the reserve team, under the stewardship of new, yet old, coach Kevin Ball.
But Ball hopes at least a couple of those looking to follow in the footsteps of Jack Colback and Jordan Henderson, will have made a sufficient impression on O’Neill.
“From the manager’s point of view and probably more from the player’s, this has been an ideal opportunity for them,” said Ball.
“Before they went out, we spoke to them and told them to go out there and show the manager what they’re all about.
“Hopefully they will have done that and from then on in, they’ll come back and hopefully he’ll say he wants one or two of the players to be in his plans.
“Ultimately it’s up to the players to push their way into the manager’s plans.
“Obviously, when the manager came to the club his main concentration was on the first-team.
“A lot of our players were out on loan and now they’ve come back, they’ll want to make an impact and see if they can make his first-team squad.
“Some of them are still young enough to go out on loan again to get more experience and then come back again and fight for an opportunity.”
For Ball, the task of taking wide-eyed young professionals from the save haven of the reserves to the unforgiving promised land of the Premier League is arguably a far harder task than the one he faced as Sunderland youth-team coach.
“In terms of going from an academy graduate into the first-team, not just at our club, it is always going to be quite difficult,” said Ball, who takes his side to Spennymoor tonight looking to build on Friday’s 6-1 friendly win over Newton Aycliffe.
“The bar is always getting raised that little bit more.
“Ultimately, the challenge always has to be to the player to do as well as they can to give themselves a chance.
“That’s all I ask of them.
“If anybody tells them it’s not hard work, they’re a liar.
“I don’t just mean running around, I mean working on their game technically - going out on the pitch and practising things.
“It’s not a big ask of them. It’s their job, it’s what’s expected of them.”
Although the predominant image of Ball remains one of the snarling skipper, who twice led Sunderland to promotion, that is an ignorantly one-dimensional view of the 47-year-old.
Just a glimpse at the likes of Henderson and Colback proves that Ball, together with academy director Ged McNamee, has shaped the progress of Sunderland’s teenagers with far more than just the odd rollicking.
Ball’s role is tantamount to that of a teacher or youth worker, dealing with everyday adolescent issues beyond the narrow sphere of the football field.
But at least in his new role, Ball is familiar with the vast amount of professionals now at his disposal after nurturing the bulk of them as Sunderland’s under-18s coach.
In turn, Sunderland privately hope that Ball’s influence and character can rub off on those at the formative stages of their careers, to ensure they don’t fall victim to the trappings which beset young footballers.
“A lot of things happen when they come to us that we have to deal with and they’re not necessarily to do with football,” added Ball.
“We’re dealing with kids who are growing up and let’s face it, we all have made mistakes and we all will make mistakes.
“A lot of my role will be talking to the players and finding out what their aspirations are.
“I’d done the role I’d been in since 2004 and I’d like to think I’ve played a reasonable role in the development of players who are either at the club or have moved on to careers elsewhere, not necessarily in football.
“I can remember like yesterday what it was like for me at their age.
“I’m not saying that’s the way forward, but I remember dealing with the pressure and expectations of becoming a footballer, which was what I always wanted.
“There’s so many aspects to deal with now. Part of my role is to try to help the transition.
“Before it was from school to the academy. Now it’s from the development squad into the first-team.”