Explained: How Sunderland are trying to bring the first team and academy groups closer together than ever before

Lee Johnson described Sunderland's 2-1 win over Lincoln City last Wednesday as 'huge' for the club.

Wednesday, 13th October 2021, 12:00 pm

Not, needless to say, because it secured three points in the Papa John's Trophy group stage.

But because the players who came into his group from the U23s not only were able to beat a strong opposition, and most importantly did so replicating the style of Johnson's regular XI.

It was a sign that the moves this year to bring the academy closer still to the first team, and establish under Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman a playing philosophy that feeds through the whole club.

Sign up to our Sunderland AFC newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Stephen Wearne scores against Lincoln City last week

The Papa John's Trophy is an obvious example of that, where U23s boss Elliott Dickman and assistant Michael Proctor have joined the first-team staff in the dugout.

That connection itself is not necessarily a new one, as Dickman outlines, but the joined-up thinking represents a step forward.

"The manager has been great with that bridge between the first team and the academy," Dickman told The Echo.

"There have been other managers who have been the same, and one or two that wasn't so much if I'm honest.

"Definitely under the regime we have now, it is a massive part of how we work.

"Michael and myself have been very fortunate to have a taste of that, and to be around the first team.

"It's always been the plan for this competition to be in and around it, which is something we've thoroughly enjoyed. The first-team staff have been excellent with all of us in the academy, really open and encouraging for us to get amongst it, whether it be watching first-team training or discussing players and their development.

"From my perspective, there's a definite togetherness."

The success of Dan Neil so far this season embodies that.

Neil was one of the stars of Dickman's U23 side last season, but was training regularly with the first-team group during the week.

The youngster has himself identified that as key to his form this year, ensuring he fully understood Johnson's philosophy when the opportunity presented itself.

Dickman said that focus on Neil's development was a sign of that was to come in pre-season, when the then gaps in Sunderland's squad accelerated the integration.

"It was something that started even before pre-season," Dickman said.

"There were discussions about Ellis Taylor, for example, and how he would move up for pre-season.

"You look at Dan Neil who was getting a lot of gametime for us in the second half of last season but his training time was with the senior group and he definitely benefited from that.

"At the end of the day, it's then up to these lads to go and take that opportunity. Our job is to get them ready for that because it's not as plain sailing as it may seem.

"Lads have ups and downs, and I'm sure Dan for example would tell you that it wasn't always an easy year for him at times, but he came through it.

"It's great that the club has that focus on younger players."

After last year's run to the play-off final, U23 results have been a little more mixed this year.

That has not come as a surprise, however.

The likes of Neil, Anthony Patterson and Josh Hawkes were realistically all beyond U23 football by the end of the campaign, and in January the club made a conscious decision to bring down the average age of the squad.

While results remain a key part of the academy's goals, equally important is ensuring players are prepared for the style of play they'll be asked to execute in the first-team environment.

That forms a key part of the U23 training programme, and can often inform part of the subsequent gameplan.

"There's elements of the style of play [in implementing the philosophy," Dickman said.

"It links together in terms of the training and the game, whether we're going to be in a high press, a mid-block, etc.

"There are certain terminologies that we use in-house as well to describe and get across what we're after.

"Ultimately what we're trying to do is produce players that the fans and the club can be proud of, players who know that it's an honour to wear the badge.

"We've got to make sure that these lads are ready for the opportunity if it comes, and that's one of the hardest things to do because it's the element that you can't replicate in training and in games.

"We feel we're getting there, and certainly part of it is trying to mirror what the first team do both in training and in games.

"It's definitely about getting a balance [between results and playing style].

"There can be some games where within the development, it can be about getting a result.

"Sometimes when you talk about development it can be a bit of a dirty word to go out and try and win a game of football. From our point of view, we want all of our age groups to be as competitive as they possible can be.

"Realistically, sometimes you'll come up against a side that's a bit better than you and you might pull bits out of the game that are a bit more about the philosophy.

"You look at the U23s, we had two very young sides in the last two games and so from our point of view we used that as an opportunity for some players to play at the Stadium of Light, which they've never done, and also to reinforce how we want to play."

Facing a strong opponent and with only a couple of senior players likely to be involved, Manchester United U21s will pose a stern test for Dickman’s group on Wednesday evening.

That, though, is all part of the journey.

A message from the Football Clubs Editor

Our aim is to provide you with the best, most up-to-date and most informative Sunderland AFC coverage 365 days a year.

This depth of coverage costs, so to help us maintain the high-quality reporting that you are used to, please consider taking out a subscription to our new sports-only package here.

Your support is much appreciated. Richard Mennear, Football Clubs Editor