The inside track on Sunderland's academy plans as Paul Reid opens up on his vision for the future
At 18, Paul Reid had a big decision to make.
He had made a breakthrough at Carlisle United, the club he loved more than any other.
The big clubs came calling.
Newcastle had shown an interest in the past and now Arsenal, Liverpool and Leeds were keen.
In the end, Reid moved to Rangers, having impressed Dick Advocaat in a trial. He never made a senior appearance.
Reid would go on to forge a successful career in the Football League, a centre-back who ultimately made over 450 appearances for a number of clubs.
His playing days ended at Eastleigh, where he met Stewart Donald and spent a short stint as Head of Recruitment.
He developed an appetite for that side of the football business, and began to further his education. A masters degree in Sports Directorship at Salford University is ongoing , while he also spent time studying at the Johan Cruyff Institute.
Reid thinks deeply at the game and is comfortable chatting about all manner of topics, from the potential impact of Brexit to England’s football revolution, Athletic Bilbao and more.
That education has created a deep interest in culture and strategy, while his own experiences as a youngster with a big reputation has an obvious benefit in helping him in his new role as Academy Director.
Around five months after taking the role, it has been about quiet evolution rather than revolution.
By his own admission, he has taken the post at a time of ‘perfect alignment’ at the club.
The new ownership see the academy as critical both morally and financially.
The manager has a keen interest in promoting young players and Sunderland’s League One status has opened doors for players who otherwise might have had to be far more patient.
“It’s priceless for us,” he says.
“We’ve got a manager that buys into the academy and is willing to give people a chance, willing to reward both good character and good performances in the U23s and U18s.
“It gives us physical evidence when you try to recruit players.
“That’s our USP at the moment, there’s a pathway there that everybody could see.
“We’ve averaged five youngsters in the squad the first team squad this season, I’d like to see that against a lot of the other teams in the leagues. “
Maintaining that as Sunderland (hopefully) rise back up through the leagues will present an altogether greater challenge.
It is not lost on any supporter that the likes of Conor Hourihane, John Egan and Martyn Waghorn would not just be regulars in the current set-up but absolutely vital players.
At the time, however, their exits felt necessary for their own development.
Breaking into a Premier League side and breaking into a League One side are two very different things.
If Sunderland get back to where they want to be it will make for a fascinating debate.
It underlines the wide range of factors that determine if and when a player gets their break. Injuries, managerial changes, financial challenges. All of these things make an impact.
Perhaps all an academy can do is focus on providing the best environment for every young player and the immediate challenge for Reid will be to focus on ensuring the next generation are ready to push for first team football, whether it be at Sunderland or elsewhere.
Though the penny was beginning to drop under the previous regime, the process of loaning out players has accelerated this season and here Reid is in total agreement with Jack Ross.
In the short term, it has led to some difficult games for the U23 side but that will hopefully come to be seen as a necessary evil.
“I think we’ve been guilty in the past of keeping players here too long.” he says.
“21,22, 23 and still without a pathway to mens competitive football.
“ I think the strategy that we’ve got now of loaning players out, getting that experience elsewhere, means that we’re not throwing players into our first team with question marks over them. We actually know that they’ve got 50-odd games under their belt, so you have that trust when they go into the first team.
“I can call on my experience,” he adds.
“I had my first experience of senior football at 17/18 when I was at Carlisle United, and absolutely loved it.
“I gained a move to Rangers and went back in to the U18s and U21s. I found that tough, after you’ve have had that taste, you want more and more of it.
“That’s certainly part of our strategy.
“The U23s serves a purpose but it does have its limitations as well, we don’t want players at 22,23 almost being institutionalised and not being able to adapt to first team football.”
The academy world Reid has stepped into poses a myriad of challenges.
Many clubs, like Brentford and Huddersfield, have stepped away entirely from the fierce competition for players and financial commitments required, instead focusing on picking up players who can quickly push for first team development.
Sunderland are absolutely committed to their Category One status and a key reason for that is the catchment area they are convinced can produce high quality, loyal talent.
That is Reid’s focus but the rise of Josh Maja also shows the need to be alert to the talent dropping out of the very top academies.
The Black Cats have seen the other side of that, too, with Sam Greenwood and Luca Stephenson leaving for Arsenal and Liverpool.
“Number one, we need to make sure we need to get the best talent from this area,” he said.
“It would really rile me if someone from this area went to a Liverpool or a Man City, that would be a real failing for me.
“Number one is to get the best from this area but we’re the same as anywhere else, we’ve got a scouting network, we’re always on the look out for better players and people who would improve the group.
“I don’t think we’re as active in the market [abroad] but we’re still certainly looking, we’ve brought in players from France and the Republic of Ireland recently.
“Right now we’re relying more on our contacts, we are a League One club right now so that [scouting] network is not really cost effective.
“We still have our contacts in Europe, between everyone at the club who know football we’ve got a lot of contacts, it’s just a case of using that network.
“We lost a couple of players we’d like to have kept but we’ve got to realise that teams like Arsenal & Liverpool will deem us as vulnerable,” he adds.
“They see that we’ve dropped to League One and think they can pluck our best players.
“All we can do is try to create an environment when the players don’t want to leave.
“We tried very hard to keep Sam and Luca but there’s ultimately not a lot we can do about it.
“We were compensated and ultimately we’ve got to see it as a success story, we aided there development where top clubs were interested. “
The challenges are myriad and Reid is unusually open about facing up tot the fact that the majority of players won’t make it.
He sees improving the life skills of those players as vital, and believes it can be help those who do make it as well.
“I’m doing my masters at the moment and a lot of it is about culture, identity, strategy,” he says.
“It interests me, the biggest for me in terms of what I see a Sunderland player is as much off the pitch as on it.
“It’s attitude, enthusiasm. Players who are humble and know what an opportunity they’ve got here.
“The staff had already instilled a lot of that, it wasn’t a case of me coming in and having to change an awful lot.
“The biggest thing for me would be try to and make the players more assertive.
“They have great attitudes and they are enthusiastic, it’s about showing it more and putting them in social situations where they have to show it more.
“I’ve had them volunteering at homeless shelters, collecting for foodbanks, co-presenting in primary schools.
“It all ties in,” he adds.
“Number one because if they don’t make it as a footballer, they’ll need the skills off the pitch. Number two, if you’re on the pitch and need to take control, because something has not gone your way, I want a player to step up.
“We talk about the high support/high challenge model.
“One of the things I would like to implement is a bit more challenge.
“Putting them out on loan a bit younger is a challenge, it’s tough.
“We’re always here to support them but they need to get out and see the big wide world as well. “
Reid’s methodical approach, his interest in culture and leadership, is not unlike Jack Ross.
The pair are facing up to roles of real pressure and responsibility, but the early signs are encouraging.