THE CHRONIC injury problems in the Aston Villa camp have forced Alex McLeish to plunder the reserves to make up the numbers.
Five rookies started Monday’s draw with Stoke City while another three sat on the bench as Villa’s fraught finale to the campaign continues.
Sunderland’s second string are similarly short on numbers, with nine youngsters out on loan and Martin O’Neill showing little inclination to give game-time to those on the fringes of the first-team.
It made Sunderland’s final home reserve game of the season yesterday almost a youth team encounter, with Ben Wilson, James Armstrong, Roarie Deacon and Liam Bagnall the only professionals in the Black Cats’ ranks.
Keith Bertschin’s youthful side duly could not match the extra pace and power of their slightly senior visitors, who secured the Premier Reserve League South title with what was ultimately a comfortable 2-0 victory.
Armstrong and Deacon spread the play well from the middle of the park on the rare occasions when Sunderland saw the ball, even if the Black Cats barely threatened Villa’s goal.
But it was goalkeeper Ben Wilson who shone for Sunderland, with a number of telling saves to keep the Black Cats in the contest until Villa grabbed their second with 15 minutes to go.
Bertschin is hopeful that to blood so many members of the youth team into the reserves ahead of schedule will prove beneficial for Sunderland in the long-term.
“It’s hugely important they don’t get too disheartened, but also hugely important that if they thought they were quite close to being a player, they realise there’s work to be done,” said Bertschin.
“As I’ve explained to the boys, the second goal killed us. A few of them are very young, but they are getting the idea of it and I’m telling them it’s a head start for them.
“We do carry a number of smaller players so they have to make some sort of dynamic contribution to play every week.
“You can live with a tricky ball player in the youth team, but if he isn’t like that in the reserves and he’s just another little lad running around, you lose your value.
“James Armstrong and Roarie Deacon, who have been used to playing with other players their own age, are doing really well to have the sort of games they’re having.
“But the young ones are still coming to terms with the speed and strength of the game.
“That’s not to say it’s only the young ones. One or two of our senior ones have blown hot and cold as well.
“But we have to look at it and say really our only attack on goal was a free-kick.
“We have to be more creative, industrious and powerful in the opponent’s half of the pitch.”
In a first half at a typically windswept Academy of Light, Villa made all the running and broke the deadlock in the 12th minute when dreadlocked skipper Daniel Johnson poked the ball through to striker Michael Drennan with just Wilson to beat.
With time and space to pick his spot, Drennan merely helped the ball onwards into the bottom left corner from eight yards out.
Wilson was alert to deny Graham Burke five minutes later – parrying the striker’s 25-yard drive low to his left.
The Black Cats stopper then benefited from an element of fortune five minutes before the break when he dashed out of his goal and slid in at the feet of Courtney Cameron.
Wilson got some of the ball, but Cameron still got the opportunity to get a shot away at the unguarded goal. His effort lacked power, though and was blocked by Jordan Watson in the Sunderland goalmouth.
Sunderland showed slightly more attacking intent after the break, left-back Anthony Callaghan driving over the bar as he darted inside on the angle.
Villa midfielder Connor Taylor tested Wilson again on the hour mark with a shot across goal from the right hand side of the area, the Sunderland keeper parrying safely away low to his right.
Callaghan tried his hand again in the 73rd minute with a free-kick from the right of goal which was saved smartly at his near post by Benjamin Siegrist.
But the killer second goal arrived four minutes later when Wilson took a goal kick short to Bagnall.
The defender completely miscontrolled his first touch and it allowed Drennan to nip in and slot the ball past Wilson.
Drennan could have completed a hat-trick three minutes later when Siegrist’s hoof forward stuck in the wind and caught Bagnall the wrong side of the Villa striker.
It left Drennan with a clear run on goal, but his attempted lob over Wilson went straight into the arms of the keeper.
Deacon drove a left-footed shot over the top from 25 yards in reply, but Villa could have extended their lead in stoppage time, Wilson producing a smart double save from left-back Enda Stevens.
Sunderland: Wilson, Marrs, Callaghan (Mandron 77), Bagnall, Watson, Honeyman, Oliver, Armstrong, Deacon, Lawson, Laidler (Mitchell 68). Subs Not Used: Gibbons, Dixon.
Aston Villa: Siegrist, Webb (Nelson-Addy 89), Stevens, Johnson, Donacien, Williams, Graham, Taylor, Drennan, Burke (Caira 58), Cameron (Grealish 76). Subs Not Used: Devine, Barrett.