Assessing Sunderland's big Bali Mumba decision ahead of the January window

It was a symbolic moment on an afternoon where a season of acrimony gave way to something more hopeful.

Sunday, 1st December 2019, 12:13 pm
Bali Mumba.

With Stewart Donald watching on, a youthful Sunderland side thumped the champions Wolves.

As the game wound down to a close, caretaker Robbie Stockdale made his final substitution. Denver Hume and Elliot Embleton had already been brought on, and now it was time for a 16-year-old making waves behind the scenes at the Academy of Light.

John O’Shea left the pitch, the takeover news of the previous week allowing hope for a brighter future and a stirring send-off for a player who had battled through the very hardest of times for the club.

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O’Shea handed over the armband to Mumba, and after the game explained why the youngster had made such an impression on him.

“Bali has come into training with the first team during the season and done very well,” he said.

“He is a 16-year-old who has come into that environment and not looked out of place, got plenty of knocks and kicks and tackles and bounced back up and showed a good attitude.

“I said to Robbie he would be the perfect example of what this club’s future is all about.

“It was a symbolic moment. That’s the future of the club, and lads like him really need to be looked after.

“Keeping the home-grown talent and bringing them through and developing them has to be the model they need going forward.”

Just a few months down the line, new manager Jack Ross made a decision even more significant.

Mumba was handed a start for the opening day of the season but the most telling thing about it was that it came as no real surprise.

Ross had been working with a threadbare squad throughout the pre-season programme but if this young midfielder was around initially to help make up the numbers, he had very quickly become something more.

After a strikingly composed and competent showing against a powerful Middlesbrough midfield in a pre-season friendly, Ross said ‘he just saw him as part of his squad’, the biggest compliment you could pay a teenager.

Against Charlton he was impressive. As Ross said, ‘Outstanding? no. Good? yes. Responsible? yes.’.

Mumba retained his place for the trip to Luton Town the week after and coped well again, though the return of Lee Cattermole in the second half had the perhaps inevitable consequence of reducing his senior minutes.

In November, he signed his first professional contract, a major moment for the club.

Most of the Premier League’s top six had taken an active interest in the youngster at some stage during his rise through the academy ranks and since the exhausting double relegations, the club has not always found it easy to retain the services of its best young players.

He was brought on at Plymouth a day later as Sunderland saw out a vital lead, Ross noting it as a sign of his trust in the youngster and a reward for his continued application and excellence.

That was the last time the now 18-year-old featured in League One, and though time remains firmly on his side just over a year on, the time for a first loan move is surely approaching.

Ross had hinted as much when last speaking on the subject earlier this season.

Though Mumba continued to train sporadically with the first team throughout the beginning of this campaign, Ross had felt it important that he had the time in an U23 environment that he had missed the year previous, thrown into the senior environment as the new boss battled to get his squad together.

Mumba has not yet featured for Phil Parkinson, even if assistant Steve Parkin has insisted that the youngster has made a positive impression when training under the new management.

Before the defeat to Scunthorpe in the leasing.com trophy, he said: “I’ve got to say that when he’s trained with me, he’s been great. He’s been really good. Technically, he can handle the ball, and he is sharp and bright.

“Obviously, I’ve not seen him play, eyes on, in a match as yet, and I’m looking forward to that, but he seems a good player and a nice kid.”

Part of the condundrum with Mumba is that as it stands, he is still searching for his best position.

Initially a gifted central midfielder, he has played most of his football this season, both at Sunderland and with England, as a right-back.

That was where he made his one appearance for the senior side this campaign, as part of the side that beat Grimsby Town 3-2 just hours after the departure of Ross.

It was a showing that summed up his talent and understandably at his still young age, his room for improvement.

Defensively there were moments when he looked exposed but when receiving possession with space in front of him, he looked a serious threat.

As both Ross and Elliott Dickman have observed, versatility is a fine asset for any young player but the risk is not becoming the master of one trade.

It seems inconceivable to anyone who saw him last season that he will not end up in midfield, but perhaps the spell in defence, particularly in an U23 side struggling this season, will be a useful exercise in bringing a different dimension and discipline to his game.

Though there have some difficult moments, coaches have generally been impressed with how he has risen to the challenge.

For now, the path to Parkinson’s side looks unclear.

He will not gamble on an unproven talent in a defensive position and in midfield, he has prioritised athleticism and power so far. That seems highly unlikely to change anytime soon.

The challenge not just for Mumba but for the likes of Elliot Embleton and Ethan Robson, too, is to prove in the coming months that they can thrive in his system and meet his demands.

This, more broadly, is one of the knock-on effects of changing managers.

George Honeyman spoke often of the dispiriting nature of working over a period of time to impress a manager and get closer to their plans, only to have to start all over again.

Establishing a pathway is notoriously difficult when the first-team’s style is muddled and changing.

Patience is of course crucial in the development of young players and Mumba remains a prospect to be excited about.

He has a long time yet to make an impression but the key for Sunderland is to ensure they learn from the mistakes of the Premier League era, when too many youngsters were prevented from getting out and testing themselves in senior football.

The turn of the year could be the perfect opening for Mumba to take the next step in his development.

For his club, there remains a wider debate about how it turns its academy products into first team players, and they will only crystallise in the new year when Embleton is fit again and Robson returns from Grimsby Town loan.