Exclusive: Ethan Robson on his Sunderland exit, bouncing back and the lessons to learn from his academy journey
Ethan Robson’s release brought an end to a 15-year journey through the ranks at the club. In an exclusive interview with the Echo, he discusses his disappointment with the decision, but outlines why it could yet be a ‘blessing in disguise’ for his career
Ethan Robson has been piecing it all together.
He has played at his boyhood club for most of his life and so has lived so many of his dreams, and so many of ours.
It’s come to an end, now, and there has been much to process.
Disappointment at the opportunities that never quite presented themselves.
Frustration with the luck that just deserted him at one or two crucial moments.
Genuine excitement about a career that still has so many chapters to be told, and a steely determination to prove those who have doubted him wrong.
Above all else, pride at wearing that shirt.
‘A kick in the teeth’
“I was disappointed when I heard, it was a kick in the teeth,” Robson tells The Echo.
“I’m a Sunderland lad and so obviously I would have loved to have stayed, but I suppose all good things come to an end.
“But if I’m honest, I’m kind of ready to just get on with my career.
“I’m disappointed, but it’s an opinion game and there’s always going to be people who doubt you. But I back my ability and I believe I can play at a good standard.
“I showed when I did play for Sunderland that I am able to play for a big club.
“I’m just looking forward, my main focus is getting out there, playing games and then who knows what will happen in the future.
“I’m disappointed but I won’t dwell on it. I’m ready to get on with things.”
Escaping the holding pattern
Robson’s emotions are mixed because while he disagrees with the logic behind the decision to release him, there’s a reason why he believes it could potentially be a blessing in disguise.
His last six months at Sunderland encapsulated the holding pattern in which he often found himself.
He was never far away from the action, and never quite at the heart of it.
He had returned from Grimsby with glowing reports, and Phil Parkinson was left in no doubt as to his talent from what he saw in training.
Yet Robson was always, as so often proved to be the case, just an injury or a suspension away.
Robson didn’t see that changing, even if he felt it should. Now he is 23 and he needs to play.
“I came back from Grimsby in good form and I thought I had a real chance of playing,” he says.
“I was training well, the manager said that as well and that he thought I could do a job for him.
“I just felt like I never got the chance to prove it in a game situation.
“I could have stayed at Grimsby and if I’m honest, if I knew I wasn’t going to play at Sunderland I might have pushed for that because I need to play games.
“So the thing is, I kind of agree with the manager’s decision.
“Even if I stayed, I probably wouldn’t play as much as I’d like.
“I honestly think it might be a blessing in disguise.
“I’m gutted, really disappointed, but we had that chat about what he thinks is the right thing for me.
“We did agree that it probably is the best thing for my future.”
Sunderland’s squad for next season is thin as it stands and yet already, there are already four contracted central midfielders who Parkinson has preferred since his arrival.
That in itself tells a tale.
“It feels like there have always been a lot of midfielders throughout my time,” Robson says.
“For instance, for much of this season there’s been one left-back at the club.
“That’s been brilliant for Denver, who has done so well and really taken that opportunity, made the spot his own.
“But that’s the bit of luck you need as well, where you know you’ll play.
“He’s done so well and earned that spot, but it’s the bit of luck I’ve maybe lacked.
“So the best thing now is to play games, get my name out there and show what I’m all about, because I do think I’m good enough.
“I don’t want to dwell on things, to think ‘I’ve been released’, but I’m definitely positive because I think I just need a run of games and hopefully I can get that next season.”
The lessons for those that fellow
That Robson will leave without ever having had a sustained run of games gives pause for thought.
Injuries, without doubt, are part of the story.
He has never been injury prone but there were a couple just when he looked to break through.
A loan move earlier in his academy is something that may have helped.
Robson was 22 by the time his temporary departure was first sanctioned.
That there has already been so much interest in a summer move owes much to the positive impression he made at Dundee and Grimsby.
It’s a process that arguably took far too long, and is the best advice he would give to anyone who follows his path.
“These days, managers look at what you’ve done in senior football, and not so much what you’ve done in the academy.
“Thankfully I’ve had two good loans now and that’s going to be huge [in finding a club].
“100%, it would have helped to get out on loan earlier.
“If anyone in the academy was to ask me for advice, that’s what I’d tell them. Get out on loan as early as you can and get that experience.
“I was always in that position where I wouldn’t be playing but I’d be in the squad if there was one injury.
“I was so often in and around it, but never playing.
“That halted things in terms of the loans.
“If I could have got out on loan, I think I’d have benefited hugely.
“Of course I was unlucky with injuries at times as well.
“Under Jack Ross, I scored against Carlisle in the Checkatrade Trophu, played well and got injured.
“I was down to play the first game of that season as well and got injured. That really was just one of those things.
“Jack was one who let me go out and get that experience, he could have kept me as cover but it was so vital at the time.
“I really enjoyed both my loan spells and it’s going to be huge for this season coming up.”
The managerial turnover
Robson is far from the only to feel that the regular turnover of managers at the club hurt the prospects of players in the academy.
George Honeyman is another who regularly spoke of the challenge that came with having to prove yourself over and over again, to get close and then have to start from scratch.
“For any player that’s tough but I think for any player in the academy, I think you’ve got to prove yourself that bit more to get the opportunity,” Robson says.
“You think you’re in the plans, that you’re in and about it, then the manager gets sacked and you’ve got to do it all over again.
“It’s happened a few times and it’s been tough for a few of us.
“I think it’s been a factor in my time, I do think I’ve been unlucky but it’s just one of those things, all I can do is look to the future really.”
Robson is determined to show his worth and there are plenty to provide inspiration.
A path well worn
Players like John Egan and Conor Hourihane have shown the value of lessons learned from Sunderland’s academy, departing to forge their way in the game and proving all the stronger for it.
“You’ve got to give them so much credit, for getting over that disappointment and getting to where they are now,” Robson says.
“You’ve got to look at them and think, ‘bloody hell, if they can achieve that, why can’t I?’
“It’s why I just can’t overthink things.
“There’s disappointment, but it’s about having a good season now.
“There are a lot of lads who’ve left who have gone on to do very good things in the game.
“I’m a Sunderland lad and I love the club, but there are good clubs out there and for footballers these days, how many stay at one for their career?
“I’m definitely excited about the future.”
The dreams that came true
Robson is indebted to so many at the club’s academy where he grew up as both a player and as a person.
Many have moved on to pastures new, but they are relationships that will endure.
“There are so many, and some who aren’t at the club anymore,” Robson says.
“I had a coach called John Tweedy [now at Wolverhampton Wanderers], who actually moved me from left back into midfield because he saw that I had that potential on the ball.
“I had a great relationship with him.
“Elliott Dickman obviously helped massively as well.
“Ged McNamee, Mark Atkinson [now at Newcastle United], Paul Bryson, Bally. All of those coaches helped me in their own way.
“When you spend so long somewhere, you become friends with so many people and I’ll keep my eye out on all of them.
“It has all been a dream come true for me,” he adds.
“I’ve played in the Championship for a club like Sunderland. That’s an unbelievable achievement for myself. I’ve got great memories, which makes myself and my family very proud.
“There’s so much I can take forward into the future, things I’ll never forget.”
And this is the thing.
Robson stops to think for a moment, of making his debut at Goodison Park, one of football’s most famous old grounds.
Being thrown into an FA Cup clash with local rivals in Middlesbrough, quite the occasion for a full debut.
A week later, going toe-to-toe with Hull City’s David Meyler and Seb Larsson, two players he had looked up to just years before.
He and his team came out on top.
Nobody can take these memories away and so for all the disappointment and for any frustration, he can look back with pride and forward with optimism.