Assessing Sunderland's key academy challenges, what needs to happen next and why it's more important than ever
Sunderland’s academy director Paul Reid spoke in-depth last week about the key challenges he is facing after the Premier League again awarded the club elite status. In his weekly column, Phil Smith reflects on this and puts it into the wider context of youth development in the UK...
Championship side Swansea City recently opted to maintain their Category One academy status, at least for another season.
When Chairman Trevor Birch had been asked shortly before the announcement about the looming decision, however, his response was telling.
"We are in a small handful of clubs outside the Premier League that run a category one because it is very, very expensive to run," he said.
"You have to balance putting your money into that as opposed to putting into the first team in terms of player wages.”
Outside the very top teams, clubs are increasingly weighing up how to make their academy a success and a sustainable enterprise in the era of the Elite Player Performance Plan.
Brentford, famously, abandoned their academy enterprise entirely.
Tired of having players they developed poached by the top clubs for a pittance, they decided to do things the other way round.
Now, they wait for the talent to drop out of the elite academies, integrating them quickly into a reserve side that is producing an eye-catching number of eventual first-team players.
That is the most extreme example, but they are by no means the only club wondering if developing players traditionally is the best way to go.
The compensation levels set for players moving before the age of 17 are relatively paltry, and the upshot of that is the top Premier League clubs can gamble on investing in a significant number of young players.
It only takes one or two to come off to make the enterprise worthwhile, and many who don't quite make the grade can still generate eye-watering funds further down the line.
On the flipside, the clubs losing their players know that in many cases, they may well be getting a good fee for a player who has no guarantee of making it in the professional game.
The nagging fear, understandably, is that there will be some who do, and the return on that investment in the earliest years of their development will then look meagre.
This is the wider context that both underpins the challenges that Sunderland are facing, and reinforces just how critical it is that they have been able to maintain category one status.
The academy has faced a number of challenges since the club dropped into League One, some of them inevitable, some perhaps not quite so much.
First and foremost, they have lost some exciting players to clubs at the top of the Premier League before they can be contracted to professional terms.
It is no exaggeration to say that a significant nucleus of the next generation of talent have moved on. Sam Greenwood to Arsenal, Luca Stephenson to Liverpool, Logan Pye to Manchester United. They have been the most high-profile examples but they are not the only ones.
The accusation levelled at the current Sunderland regime is that they have been too content to allow that process to happen. Academy Director Paul Reid again strenuously denied that last week, and for balance it must be said that some key talent has stayed. Bali Mumba committed on good terms, and the club are expected to announce another key signature imminently.
The brutal reality remains that until the club climbs back up the pyramid, they will remain vulnerable. The quality of their programme in the lower age groups, again reaffirmed by the Premier League in their recent decision, means fellow category one academies will continue to see a potential recruitment opportunity.
Maintaining category one status at least means they are protected as much as they can be if a player does decide to leave, and it should also give them a better chance of retaining the next generation to break through.
This is particularly crucial when many inside the academy are excited by the wealth of talent currently playing in the U13/14 age group.
When that group hits the age when they are beginning to consider professional terms, the club needs to able to present a different picture, though in truth, much of that means boasting a senior team in one of the top-two tiers.
Poor results at U18 and U23 level have also rightly drawn scrutiny from understandably concerned supporters.
Particularly in the case of the latter group, it is a tricky one to recruit players into. Firstly, any player of that age coming into the club while it is in League One ought really to be challenging quickly for a first-team place. In some cases, Sunderland are also facing teams in their league who are signing players on wages equivalent to those in the Black Cats’ senior squad.
The club’s decision to loan out players in this age group has also compounded the situation, though that’s a policy to be applauded given that the failure to expose players to senior football earlier in their career has harmed the development of a number of players in recent years.
Regardless, it’s a malaise that can’t be allowed to continue, as there can be few benefits for the club’s best younger players in being regularly exposed to these kind of regular defeats.
Some of these issues, it's worth stressing, pre-date the descent into the third tier. Josh Maja and Joel Asoro are two examples of the importance of investing in those upper age groups to supplement the local talent coming through. Their success merely underlines the error in not doing it more regularly and with all of these issues, it's worth remembering that the Black Cats almost failed their last audit three years ago.
In the previous era, the current one and the one to come, the question will be of investment.
Reid is overseeing an overhaul and increase in the club’s academy recruitment department, which will ultimately be responsible for ensuring that the club are better at replacing those players who move on and strengthening the various groups generally.
Sunderland are a club vulnerable to the absolute elite academies at the moment, but their status at category one means they should still be an immensely attractive option to talented and ambitious players further down the chain.
Close scrutiny will right be applied to ensure that the resources and skills are there to ensure that task can be carried out in the coming years.
That is all the more pressing when you consider those aforementioned players who have moved on.
Those departures will not make it any easier to improve the results at U18 and therfore U23 level in the next couple of years, unless there is a fresh influx of capable talent.
The decision and report from the Premier League last week reaffirmed some of the exceptional work being done daily by academy staff, ensuring that the club carries out its immense responsibility to provide the best possible platform for local talent to go on and enjoy a career in the game.
More broadly, the crackdown on excessive loss-making at Championship level means many clubs will inevitably pivot towards investing heavily in their academy programmes in the years ahead.
Sunderland simply cannot afford to fall any further behind.
For either the current regime or any new one on the horizon, investment in this centre of excellence and its hugely diligent staff is more important than ever.
Many of the issues can only be fully addressed when they get back to where they belong at first team level, but there is also so much that can be done now, so long as the will is at the very top.
Maintaining category one status is a good start, particularly when there are two others with the same status right on the club’s doorstep, but there is so much more to be done.