If you believe the hype, Sunderland’s youth system is currently one of the best in the country. With Ian Branfoot employed as ‘Official Bloke in Charge of Getting Good Young ‘Uns In’ and Ricky Sdr… Sbr… Sbragl… sod it, that guy from York in the heady position of ‘Official Bloke in Change of Making Good Young ‘Uns Into Even Better Young ‘Uns,’ we are safe in the knowledge that the current crop of youngsters are among the best to come through in recent history. The U17 Sunderland team is holding its own, and not playing football badly either, while the U19 team continues to do well, with plenty of players making the transition to reserve team football seem effortless. Some players have even managed to break through into the first team; stand up Paul Bracewell, sorry, Paul Thirlwell, Chris Lumsdon and Mark Maley who have all been involved in the first team. All this has to be applauded and big slaps on the back of everyone connected with the youths should be dished out. However, one has to ask, how good are these latest batch of youngsters?
Only time will tell. However, this isn’t the first time we’ve been told that we currently have several promising youngsters. This particular yarn has been spun on more occasions than I care to remember. When Denis Smith was at the helm we were constantly told that the club was in good hands, that the amount of young potential bubbling underneath the surface was never in question. And fair enough, the young players did come through and played in the first team. Keiron Brady, David Rush and Brian Atkinson, to name but three. The fans seemed impressed. The best thing was, we were told, that there was still more to come. Busby Babes? Pah! Give me Smith’s Siblings any day of the week. Anyway, the youths made their appearance in the first team and we waited with baited breath for them to graduate into first team regulars. And we waited, and waited… until we went blue in the face and fainted due to lack of oxygen. However, the expected transformation of boys into established first team members failed to materialise.
Instead, youth appearances began to follow a familiar pattern: a first team start, followed by a promising game, followed by a spell of around ten games plucking spelks out of their arses because they spent that much time on the bench. This frustrating pattern was never broken; no matter how impressive the player was in the game he started. If the result wasn’t good, one of the youngsters would inevitably take the blame and cop the drop, even if he’d played a blinder. Obviously, after a while, the players grew fed up of watching experienced professionals turn in inept performances, all the while keeping their places. They grew unsettled and the proof of Sunderland’s supposedly class youth system was discarded. Of the said three, Keiron Brady has just failed in a bid to sue the club; David Rush has ended a spell in pub football and headed for the bright lights of Hartlepool, whilst Brian Atkinson currently plays for Darlo. Depressingly, this is not the end of the false dawns that we have had to put up with.
If we fast-forward a few years, we come to the second batch of promising youngsters to come through the club. When Martin Smith and Craig Russell burst onto the scene, we all expected them to go and win international honours within a few years. Russ particularly was tipped to make a first team place his own after a few seasons learning his trade and serving his football apprenticeship. He became an immediate favourite with the Sunderland fans, partly due to the fact that he used to stand on the Fulwell before he was signed up. He was seen as one of us. Anyway, Russ and Smithy came into the first team picture and everyone expected great things of them. However, these great expectations were never fulfilled in the case of the Jarrow Arrow, whilst Smithy has been a different kettle of fish. He has hardly ever had a decent run in the side, but, whenever he has, he has definitely not let himself down. But after a while of coming in, doing well and getting dropped, he started to pick up little niggling injuries and, before he knew it, found himself out of the first team picture altogether. After his first few seasons of promise, Smithy has never been given the chance to shine. Russ was packed off to Man City and has recently been on loan to Tranmere, while Smithy continues to impress when given the opportunity (i.e. in the Worthless Cup). Anyone starting to see a rather disturbing pattern emerging?
The problem is obvious. The youth system does produce quality players and, more often than not, the players do end up playing for the first team. However, there seems to be some sort of glass ceiling that they hit, once they get to a certain level, they seem unable to improve any further. It has happened in all previous cases: Brady, Rush, Atkinson, Russell and Smith. Surely, it is the coaching staff’s job to nurture talent and transform it into consistent performances, yet as soon as a youngster sets foot in the first team, we seem perplexed as to what to do next. It is happening right now with Mickey Bridges. He exploded onto the first team in a blaze of goals, glory and erm, something else that starts with the letter g, only to find himself ousted from the scene, with little more than a sniff of a recall for the best part of two years.
We can gauge how successful our youth system has been throughout the last ten years by looking in the Premiership. Count how many of Sunderland’s youngsters are playing in the top flight. If you look really, really hard, you might see one. Oh, sorry, that was just me being slightly over optimistic. That’s right. None at all. A big, fat, Paul Butler sized zero. So, by my estimation, this means that in the past ten years, teams such as Cardiff, Carlisle and Chesterfield have had a more successful youth set-up than ourselves. A shoddy fact, considering our clubs ‘proud’ record of producing youngsters. But what can the staff do to rectify this problem? Well, short of getting on the blower to Alex Ferguson and asking him for his secret, I don’t rightly know. Just time and patience when training the youngsters will pay off. With all of the recent improvements in the youth set-up, lets hope we can start bringing through some of these players (usually Sunderland fans) who seem to slip through our net before popping up and scoring goals against us. Sunderland, a waste ground for promising young players? You’d better believe it. I’ve got a good sense of deja vu coming on. Best of luck Smithy and Mickey, I think you’re going to need it.