Ethan Robson opens up on big ambitions and exactly what he needs to do to thrive at Sunderland
It was the worst season in Sunderland’s modern history but even in the darkest days, and even before Stewart Donald’s takeover, there were a handful of players who offered some hope.
In January of that campaign, Sunderland welcomed Hull City, the Black Cats sitting bottom of the table.
Joel Asoro scored, and a narrow win was sealed.
One of the big talking points had been a quite exceptional debut in central midfield.
It had a looked a daunting task, when the line-ups were announced.
Ethan Robson would be facing David Meyler and Seb Larsson, two of the most experienced campaigners in the division.
Two players who had set the benchmark for what he wanted to achieve in the game.
“That was a stand-out game for myself,” Robson remembers.
“Playing against David Meyler and Seb Larsson, two ex-Sunderland players, I looked up to them as I was coming up through the academy.
“I held my own against them.”
Sunderland, though, were a mess and before it could get better it had to get a lot worse.
Robson was in and out, hooked at half-time when Brentford came north and looked distressingly superior in every department.
He had enough, though, to show that in the next tier Sunderland would have someone to count on.
Strikingly, he spoke after a defeat at Craven Cottage, when relegation was confirmed but nothing else known.
It would have been so easy then to be coy on the future, to hedge bets, but Robson would not.
He had no intention of going anywhere, playing for this club was his dream and always would be.
He urged his fellow academy graduates to stay and stick together. Some did, some didn’t.
Through it all, Robson had to watch on, sidelined by a raft of frustrating injuries. He should have started the season but couldn’t, Bali Mumba getting the opportunity instead. When he finally returned, there was a quite glorious, clean strike against Carlisle United in the Checkatrade Trophy.
Within moments, an impact injury sent him back to the treatement room.
There were a few minutes against Manchester City U21s when that knocked cleared up, and a ferocious challenge in midfield almost immediately. There were a good few months of frustration unloaded then.
Ross felt a chance would come, but he also knew he could not guarantee it.
So a loan at Dundee followed, a brutal few months as they failed to beat the drop. As Robson will have seen the season before, being a loan player is not easy when times are tough.
He played though, competed and scored.
“It was tough, but there were a lot of good things to take from it,” he says.
“The results weren’t great, but if you look at the bigger picture for myself, it will definitely stand me in good stead.
“I learned a lot, I really enjoyed it be honest. The results weren’t great but I got a few goals, and it will definitely help me.
“There were some big games up there, really competitive. Playing in front of 50,000 at Ibrox, it’s some experience.”
Now he’s back, and determined to take his chance. Crucially, he has been working on developing the kind of game that can help him thrive at this level.
Sign up to our Sunderland AFC newsletter
Timely, too, given his manager’s desire to get more athleticism in the team.
“I’ve definitely tried to have that bit more snap about me, try to become a bit more of a physical player,” he says.
“When you come through the academy it’s all nice football, but what I learned in Scotland was that you’ve got to have that snap.
“You can’t just always think, let him have the ball, you’ve got to make tackles in midfield, you’ve got to get up and down.
“That’s something I’ve spoken about with the manager, we’ve watched loads of little clips and that’s definitely helped,” he adds.
“Off the ball, I think I’ve come back to prove that, I can make those tackles in midfield, I can get up and down, all that kind of thing.
“It is a brutal league.
“It’s really hard, 60-odd games. It’s a physical league and sometimes there are just going to be games where isn’t pretty football.
“You’ve got to win those second balls, you’ve got to defend a lead, you’ve got to be good on the ball but even better off it because of how relentless it is.
“Everyone knows I’m a Sunderland fan and I want to play for this club as much as I can. It’s always been my dream to be in this environment.
“That Championship season was obviously a negative but I got a few chances and I thought the next season I would really kick on.
“Obviously because of injuries it was really top start, but I’m hoping this season I can get a chance to play and show the fans what I’m all about.”
Competition is fierce.
Elliot Embleton looks ready to burst through and Ross has plenty of experience in midfield.
Robson, though, will get his chance.
It feels like a crucial season but against Benfica B that tenacity he spoke of was on full show.
There was a yellow card for a crunching challenge, but plenty of other good interventions.
Alongside Grant Leadbitter, he formed one half of an assured partnership.
There are few better to learn from at close quarters.
“He’s done it all, hasn’t he?
“As academy players, you just look up to him, what he’s done and what he’s still doing.
“Came up [through the ranks], local Sunderland lad, you definitely aspire to that, the likes of him and Jordan Henderson.
“They’re role models for all of us.
“It’s going to be tough [getting into the side this season].
“But football always is, it’s never easy to get to where you want to be, it’s going to be tough competition. I just want to hit the ground running, show what I’m all about.”
There’s no doubting Robson has that hunger and that drive.
Now it’s about trying to take that final step.