Sunderland managed to emerge from the January window with a stronger squad than they entered it with, making strong additions across the pitch. Among these are 20-year-old Kazaiah Sterling, 21-year-old Jimmy Dunne and 22-year-old Lewis Morgan, on loan from Tottenham, Burnley and Celtic respectively until the end of the season.
In usual circumstances, third tier clubs with limited resources cannot be too selective about clubs at higher levels loaning them players. But Sunderland isn’t just another third-tier club. The Academy of Light bears category one status, the same as the academies of the Premier League’s top six. Throughout the entirety of its existence coaches have been tasked with developing players capable of playing in the Premier League and the Championship. Less than two years ago, Sunderland were a Premier League club lending our young players to clubs of the level we currently find ourselves competing at. Though the club’s fortunes have nosedived in this time, it does not mean the prospects of youngsters have done the same.
To be clear, any player who possesses the quality to come in and improve the team should not be passed up on. If someone is good enough, they’re old enough. The promotion race is too tight to pass up on someone who could make the difference between going up automatically or slogging it out in the play-offs. In the same breath though, it is too close to be giving chances to young players still learning their trade. There is too much to play for to allow youngsters of other clubs to sit on the periphery, coming on occasionally to try and get to grips with senior football and then leave. If we are going to blood young players and accept that their mistakes as part of their learning process, it may as well be youngsters whose long-term futures the club is invested in.
Sunderland have had contrasting fortunes when it has come to loaning youngsters in recent seasons. For every Danny Rose, whose career has blossomed since his spell at the Stadium of Light, there is a Javier Manquillo or an Adnan Januzaj. When examining the non-existent contribution of players such as the latter, it is all too easy to forget the youngsters pushed down the pecking order to accommodate them. Players, who, in the event of the worst-case scenario taking place, wouldn’t necessarily be the first to jump ship. In hindsight, was there nobody in the academy who could have matched the contributions made by Tyias Browning, Brendan Galloway, Ovie Ejaria and Ashley Fletcher last season? Obviously, no manager would sign a player he did not feel could contribute to his team, but with the benefit of hindsight, it would be hard to make a case that any of these players would have been missed. By taking on youngsters to develop them for other clubs, those first team minutes are taken away from Academy players. These players have pledged their futures to the club and, if allowed to develop, could at the very least demand a sizeable transfer fee.
Each player has their merits though. Morgan’s spell at the Stadium of Light can only be helped by his experiences working under Jack Ross at St Mirren. Jimmy Dunne proved himself at lower levels and successfully handled the step up from Accrington Stanley last season to Hearts where he began this season. The youngest of the trio, Kazaiah Sterling, comes highly rated from the Tottenham youth system and it was reported Sunderland beat off competition from higher divisions to land his signature. There are however alternatives from within the Academy, with various forms of credibility. Highly rated Elliot Embleton has only enhanced his reputation on loan at Grimsby and was League Two’s PFA player of the month for December. His loan was extended in January to the rest if the season, something which could be viewed as an error if Lewis Morgan fails to deliver. Defender Jack Bainbridge has started two Checkatrade trophy games, whilst Benji Kimpioka will have been hoping to make the fourth striker spot his own following Jerome Sinclair’s departure.
It goes without saying that I wish each player every success during their time at Sunderland. If Kazaiah Sterling scored the goal that sent us up, I’d be as elated as any fan. but if their spells turn sour, you can only wonder what might have been.