Assessing Sunderland's big Southend United decision - and why reserve leagues may be the answer
Last night’s game against Fleetwood was the fifth of nine games that Sunderland will play in a spell of just 35 days.
This congested period is followed by, possibly, three weeks of nothing. I may be forced to write about how the light nights are drawing in (again), or the Sunderland Quiz League (again).
This sounds like bad planning when it’s really more down to bad luck. Saturday, March 21 now has a hole where Bury used to be. A week later Phil Parkinson’s men are due to play away to Southend United at (unfashionable) Roots Hall.
But there is a good chance that Southend will be rescheduled to accommodate international fixtures. The European Championship play-offs take place on the Thursday and Monday either side of that weekend.
Jon McLaughlin, Conor McLaughlin, Tom Flanagan and Kyle Lafferty all have a chance of call-ups, which could leave the club with a quandary.
Should Sunderland play Southend without them? The Shrimpers are currently second bottom and have lost six of their last seven.
However, Sunderland lost at (unfashionable) Roots Hall last May and only just scraped a victory against Southend in a dire encounter at the Stadium of Light on November 2.
The chances are that, if they are offered the option of deferring the March 28 fixture, they will take it.
That should leave only one game to rearrange and not a huge fixture backlog. Especially compared to last season.
We will never know for sure how much the fixture pile-up cost SAFC in 2018-19, but it can’t have helped.
They had to play their final nine games in 32 days. This was three fewer than automatically promoted Luton and Barnsley and two fewer than Charlton, won the play-off final in the only important game that Sunderland played at Wembley last season.
As a topic this all ties in quite nicely with the possible three-week hiatus Sunderland now face between Blackpool away on March 14 and Shrewsbury at home on April 4.
The fixture accumulation of last season and the impending three week gap without a game could both have been obviated, at least in part, by bringing back the old reserve leagues.
What was so wrong with them?
That question is usually met with meaningless words; as opposed to an answer. For example: “The game has moved on.”
At every club there are players who haven’t played in months. There certainly are at Sunderland.
There are very few players who don’t want to play football matches (although credit to Sunderland, in the last few seasons they’ve managed to sign the handful who fit that description).
The reserve leagues in the olden days were such that any footballer in England might be on the pitch. Opponents could be established top-class players returning from injury, emerging young superstars – or journeyman assassins.
All experience is good experience and; the advantages of the current under-23 set-up with added overage players – plus whatever the EFL Trophy is called for now – are not obvious.
According to the Premier League, the under-23 division was invented to provide “a greater focus on technicality, physicality and intensity to bring players as close to first-team experience as possible.”
If that’s what they really want, then they should admit to being wrong and bring back the reserves.
Step back to step forward.