What happens next when you're a young Sunderland player who gets released? Ex-Middlesbrough midfielder Stephen Wearne has been here before

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Stephen Wearne has been in this position before – albeit in more challenging circumstances.

The 21-year-old midfielder was released by Sunderland following the end of the 2021/22 campaign, two years after joining the Black Cats from North East neighbours Middlesbrough.

When Wearne left Boro in the summer of 2020, there was even more uncertainty for out-of-contract players due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, yet a move to Wearside kept him in the game.

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At first Wearne was just happy to be playing for Sunderland’s under-23s side, yet, in his second season on Wearside, the playmaker was able to make three senior appearances in the Papa John’s Trophy, scoring in two of them.

Stephen Wearne playing for Sunderland at Lincoln in the Papa John's Trophy. Picture by FRANK REIDStephen Wearne playing for Sunderland at Lincoln in the Papa John's Trophy. Picture by FRANK REID
Stephen Wearne playing for Sunderland at Lincoln in the Papa John's Trophy. Picture by FRANK REID

Those performances helped secure a loan move to National League side Torquay in January, giving him a taste of senior football on a regular basis.

That should stand Wearne in better stead to find a new club this summer. The midfielder made 14 consecutive starts for Torquay, while scoring three goals, before picking up an ankle injury which curtailed his season in April.

"When I was first brought in at Sunderland I knew I was coming in to sort of rebuild with the 23s because they’d had a couple of players leave before,” Wearne tells the Echo when reflecting on his time on Wearside.

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"I used the time at the club to knuckle down and do all I could and I wasn’t really expecting to get in and around it.

“When the chance came in the Papa John’s games I just knew I had to take it, thankfully I managed to score a couple of goals and then I thought I might have a chance here.

"Obviously I went out on loan and it was disappointing that I got injured because I was starting to do quite well.

"I’m 21 now and am getting to the age where you don’t really want to be playing 23s at this age anymore, and it wasn’t really a place where I could get into the first team.”

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Wearne also thanked members of Sunderland’s coaching staff for giving him another chance.

"I left Middlesbrough during Covid and I owe a lot to Elliott Dickman (former under-23s boss) and Michael Proctor who brought me in to Sunderland because I didn’t have a club,” Wearne explains.

"Nothing was really going on so they brought me in and gave me the experience to build on and get that loan move.

"Now I feel like I’ve had a good season, obviously I was disappointed to get injured. I’m just going to go away on holiday now, I've spoken to my agent and a few clubs but I’m not going to rush into anything.”

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Wearne’s injury setback, which occurred at the start of April, was expected to keep him sidelined for six to eight weeks, yet his recovery is taking longer than expected.

Still, he hopes to be back for the start of pre-season, wherever that may be.

"I found out a few weeks ago that I was getting released,” says Wearne, “after I came back from Torquay because of the injury.

"All of the other lads found out a bit before me so I had a meeting with Kristjaan (Speakman) and a few of the coaches and they gave me the option if I wanted to go in for pre-season to get back fit.

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"It was basically just going to be a short-term contract so to be fair I’m quite appreciative they gave me that opportunity but I think I’ll be fit for pre-season anyway.”

So could the playmaker return to Torquay, where he was managed by Gary Johnson (father of former Sunderland boss Lee), for a second spell?

"I’m keeping my options open at the minute,” admits Wearne.

"I loved it there. It’s a lovely place to be fair, obviously it’s a long way from home but the people at the club are great.

"I owe a lot to the gaffer and Aaron Downes the assistant because they brought me in, were great and then just put loads of trust in me to put me straight in the team.

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"I started the first game, went down on the Wednesday, started on the Saturday and then played every game until I got injured.

"I learnt a lot from that experience and can’t speak highly enough of everyone at the club and the fans.”

Wearne also learnt a lot from being in and around the Sunderland first team and gaining advice from senior players.

“It was class,” says the midfielder. “The two years I spent there were probably the years where I enjoyed my football the most.

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"Everything about the place is just top. All the staff are brilliant, the facilities and the fans are obviously class.

"Everyone at the club has played a big part in my development.

"There were a couple of us (from the under-23s) that were training everyday with the first team and I got on the bench a few times in the league, travelled to the QPR and Arsenal games.

"A few of the lads were really good to be fair. Bailey Wright was top, just with all the young guys he’s just the best guy ever.

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"It was really good training around lads like Pritch (Alex Pritchard) and Geeds (Aiden McGeady) who has played at the highest level, so it was good learning from them and the standard they set. To be fair all the lads are top.

“There was a real ethos of getting young players to the club and obviously you can see that with the recruitment and I think the club is going in the right direction.”

Wearne’s career will go in a different direction this, yet the midfielder remains grateful for his opportunity on Wearside.