Sunderland old boy reveals how club can develop more homegrown talent

Martin Scott.
Martin Scott.
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Duncan Watmore became the first Sunderland player since Jack Colback to emerge through the Under-21 system and secure a place in the starting XI.

Watmore does not quite fall into the “homegrown” category though.

Martin Scott

Martin Scott

The England Under-21 international arrived at the Academy of Light as a hungry 19-year-old; eager to make the grade after rejection by Manchester United as a youngster and crucially blessed with the experience of “men’s football” at non-league Altrincham.

For all Watmore has been a heartening success story for Sam Allardyce, the class of Colback, Jordan Henderson and Martyn Waghorn remains the last successful crop of Wearside-reared talent.

Sunderland are not alone in facing the challenge of converting U21 players into first-team footballers. It’s a Premier League-wide problem.

With more prize money being fed into the U21 Premier League and little appetite to return to the old reserve team structure, few clubs have found convincing answers.

We need to expose players to the issues of lower league and non-league levels and I think that will help

Martin Scott

Former Sunderland defender Martin Scott is at the coal-face of youth development with his Improtech football academy – a training scheme which has helped to produce Black Cats highly-rated U21 prospect Ethan Robson and U18 midfielder Chris Allan.

Scott can make a detached assessment of the situation and believes greater exposure to competitive football has to be the answer.

“The old reserve team structure isn’t there, so the loan system has to work,” he said.

“In the system at Sunderland, they’ve got some good young players, but you only get experience by playing.

Martin Scott.

Martin Scott.

“There’s a big argument over whether young players should go out on loan. In my opinion, they should, at any level they can to play games that actually matter.

“U21s football is fantastic. It does educate players how to play the game.

“But does it really, really help them develop that winning mentality which you need when you step up to that professional level?

“I’ve been watching a lot of Northern and lower league football, and there’s the passion, winning mentality and ruthlessness of the game and what it means to win and lose games.

“A lot of 21 players who go out on loan to a lower league level find it tough, for whatever reason.

“Is it a case of them being wrapped up in cotton wool all their academy life? They probably have realistically.

“We need to expose players to the issues of lower league and non-league levels and I think that will help.”

Former Sunderland boss Gus Poyet did take an interest in the work of the academy, yet the focus of Martin O’Neill, Paolo Di Canio and Dick Advocaat was almost exclusively on the fortunes of the first-team.

However, with his background as an ex-head of youth development at Sunderland, Sam Allardyce has begun to take steps towards improving the chances of the club’s rookies.

Several members of the U21 squad have begun to train with the first-team on a regular basis, despite Sunderland’s pressures in the Premier League relegation battle.

“Since Big Sam has been at the club, I know he’s stepped up quite a lot of the younger players like Ethan Robson and Rees Greenwood,” said Scott.

“They’ve been across and trained with the first-team just to expose them to that environment where it’s 22 players fighting for that jersey on a Saturday.

“I think clubs need to do a lot more of that.

“Southampton don’t really let any of their players go out on loan, but they train with the first-team a lot more.

“When a club is struggling and at the wrong end of the table, it takes a brave manager to put a young player in.

“Managers at any level don’t have time to look at the academy levels. It’s wrong that they don’t have enough time to look at the full set-up of the club.

“Big Sam has started to do it and lay a few foundations, which is exciting.

“I think we’ve all seen a difference since he’s come on board.

“They needed someone to come in and change things right across the board and they’ve got the right man.”

After hanging up his boots at Sunderland in 1998, left-back Scott had a spell as Hartlepool manager before coaching roles at Middlesbrough and Barnsley.

He set up Improtech at Houghton’s Kepier Elite Academy four years ago, before opening a second branch at Whitley Bay’s Monkseaton High School, with graduates of the soccer school now in the youth systems at every North East club.

“There’s definitely players and talent out there who develop late,” he added.

“I know players who have been in the academy system and by the time they get to 15/16, they’re actually burnt out.

“Lads who have not been in the system have that desire, that drive.

“They might have been told they’re not good enough at nine or 10, but that instills a real drive in them.

“Hopefully I can develop those players to get into the professional game.”