Chris Young column: Sunderland have to start turning to youth

Lynden Gooch
Lynden Gooch
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The first-team are familiarly forlorn in propping up the table, yet Sunderland’s Under-21s are tasting the fresh air at the top of the mountain.

Monday’s 2-0 win at Southampton moved Robbie Stockdale’s side to the summit of the U21 Premier League. At least there are a few seeds of optimism in this club’s depressing annual flirtation with the doldrums.

Sunderland are perhaps now at a stage where homegrown players MUST be thrust into first-team action if the club is going to thrive again

The bright start to the campaign from the U21s inevitably prompts those calling for the kids to be given a chance to shout even louder, and it’s an entirely understandable reaction.

When the first-team haven’t put a win on the board after seven games, there’s an element of speculation over whether these youngsters waiting in the wings can do any worse?

And those who saw the energy and freshness injected by Duncan Watmore and Lynden Gooch against Exeter (and yes, I know it’s ‘only’ Exeter) in the League Cup are desperate to see that hunger in the Premier League.

In reality though, it would take a spectacularly brave manager to flood his side with rookies, when the club are facing the nerve-shredding existence in the Premier League’s relegation zone.

Watmore, Charis Mavrias and Mikael Mandron were the only three members of the starting XI this week that could even boast any competitive league experience.

However, Sunderland are perhaps now at a stage where homegrown players MUST be thrust into first-team action if the club is going to thrive again.

There were several pertinent points raised in the North-South debate sparked by Gary Neville last weekend.

Sunderland would privately fully endorse Neville’s belief that some overseas players would prefer to join any club within spitting distance of London than venture this close to the Scottish border.

Inevitably, that leads to signing some imports who don’t want to be here. We could all point to a few in that category over recent years.

But that makes it doubly important to rear academy products and incorporate them into the first-team. They give an identity to both the side and the club.

Setting aside the phenomenal unwavering level of support from the stands, what can Sunderland point to as an identity at present? Escape artists? Serial sackers?

Youngsters also provide different qualities to those who arrive for big bucks. After spending years of their adolescence at the Academy of Light, they will indeed run through that proverbial brick wall.

And this is where the U21s nestling at the top of the table is an utter irrelevance.

Yes, it’s nice to foster a winning mentality. Yes, it’s nice to give Wearside lads a career in the game, even it’s not at Sunderland.

But the be-all and end-all is getting players into the first-team starting XI.

That pathway remains rocky.

There’s a recognition of the need to take steps after Watmore, Jordan Pickford and Tom Beadling spent pre-season alongside their first-team peers.

Yet after two bright, one brief and one indifferent substitute outings, Watmore is now back in the U21s.

Dick Advocaat sees Watmore as more of a central striker than a wideman, and with more experienced pair Steven Fletcher and Jermain Defoe among the subs, the 21-year-old has been left out.

But Watmore has proven himself at U21 level, it’s beneath him now. His unpredictably, finishing prowess and hunger surely makes him worthy of a regular spot on the bench.

Leaving him out hardly encourages him to sign a new contract.

But it’s not just about Watmore.

Are promising players who have signed professional contracts and progressed from the Under-18s fast-tracked sufficiently?

Midfield pair Rees Greenwood and Ethan Robson – who both moved up from the U18s last season – are two of the brightest prospects at the club. Gus Poyet certainly thought they had the potential to go all the way.

Yet both were limited to substitute’s roles against Southampton.

Should the likes of Mavrias, Valentin Roberge and Will Buckley (who enjoyed a couple of outings earlier this season) be playing for the U21s and blocking the pathway?

It’s fine if a first-teamer is coming back from an injury and needs a run-out in the second string, but it’s a different matter altogether if places are being taken up by those the club is desperately looking to offload.

Now, perhaps players take longer before they are ready for first-team action these days than in previous years. It might be 19-20 for a debut now, rather than 17-18.

But if Sunderland are to progress as a club and buck the trend of northern struggle, then they have to see if the kids sink or swim.