Sunderland’s second victory at the Stadium of Light this season was refreshing in several ways. Primarily, it came only three home games on from their first; the wait for a Wearside win in 2018 was, mercifully, far shorter than it had been the previous year.
It was a win which saw another clean sheet kept, the fifth in eleven games since Chris Coleman took over the managerial reigns, and a far cry from the shambles that was the second half capitulation at Cardiff City. Coleman has not yet solved the defensive woes that have been almost omnipresent since the season kicked off, but he is certainly moving in the right direction.
However, for many in attendance on Saturday, these joys were usurped by something rather more rousing: the presence of youth. No fewer than six of the starting eleven that defeated Hull City were aged twenty-three or under. Two, in the form of Joel Asoro and Ethan Robson, were making their first ever starts in professional football.
Asoro, of course, nabbed the game’s only goal, whilst Robson was hugely impressive in central midfield. Robson’s comfort on the ball and cool head acted as the perfect foil for the energy of a fellow Academy of Light graduate in front of him. George Honeyman has come in for plenty of criticism this term, but it is easy to forget that this constitutes his first full season of first-team football. Given that he is twenty-three, it does feel like it’s now or never for Honeyman, but more performances like the weekend’s will go a long way toward proving the doubters wrong.
Whilst he and Robson may have been the only starters who had been nurtured entirely in the club’s academy, that did not diminish the goodwill that stemmed from seeing so many youngsters come out on top. Coleman’s decision to do away with James Vaughan and leave himself with just Asoro and Josh Maja as striking options looked rather daunting for a duo whose combined age comes in at just one year older than John O’Shea, but on Saturday they displayed a partnership which went some way to justifying the Welshman’s decision.
This abundance of youth energised a side that had wilted in recent weeks and, just as importantly, served to ensure that a home crowd long tired of lackadaisical performances would have little reason to doubt Sunderland’s effort. From the off, Coleman’s men looked a world away from their South Wales collapse, combining vigour with a forward-thinking style that had been all too lacking since the victory over Fulham a month earlier.
It was, understandably, met with approval. Even before Asoro’s excellent finish as early as the twentieth minute, the signs were there that this would be a different afternoon at the Stadium of Light. Vitality on the pitch spawned enthusiasm off it; even Jake Clarke-Salter and Tyias Browning, loanees, saw every tackle and interception met with roared appreciation.
Yet, while Coleman’s faith in youth should be celebrated, even the manager himself has been quick to apply the brakes. Speaking after that vital win, Coleman was clear. “Ideally, we wouldn’t be in a position where they are playing so much football, but that’s where we are.”
If that seemed like him being overly cautious, pessimistic even, it wasn’t. After all, the win against Fulham came via the introduction of Maja and Asoro to proceedings, with the former bagging his first goal for the club. Coleman then offered Maja starts away to Nottingham Forest and Cardiff, games in which the striker struggled to make an impact.
Far from implying that Maja isn’t good enough - Saturday’s performance was excellent - it is instead an indication of the perils of placing too much faith in what are, to all intents and purposes, footballing novices. As mentioned, Honeyman has already undertaken dips in form that have seen some write him off as a non-entity. He, Maja, Asoro, Robson et al. were excellent at the weekend, but to expect them to replicate that for the rest of the season - the rest of a season that will be spent almost entirely fighting relegation, no less - is not only naive but cruel too.
And that is why, for all they have been maligned, Sunderland and Coleman must still ensure that the squad’s older heads remain focused. Many - your columnist included - have lamented the demise of O’Shea and Lee Cattermole this season, offering the not entirely unfair view that both may be finished as regular starting footballers. Yet against Hull they led from the front, allowing younger legs to scurry around them, all the while focusing on maintaining a shape that, come the second half in particular, was pivotal in keeping Robbin Ruiter’s sheet clean.
Coleman was swift to play up the performances of those two, with good reason. To rely entirely on young players would place upon them a burden much too great for their shoulders to bear; better to supplement their evident talent with what experience the squad still retains. Ethan Robson’s showing at the weekend set many a pulse racing, but it would not have been possible with Cattermole behind him. Correspondingly, Cattermole, surrounded by young legs, did not feel the need to go marauding into no man’s land as he so often has this term. Their partnership will not always work so seamlessly, but the signs are positive.
Coleman is only too aware of his squad’s deficiencies. It is why, despite the promise offered by both Maja and Asoro, he continues to work day and night to bring in a more experienced striker. He knows he cannot turf out everyone on the wrong side of their prime. O’Shea’s legs may have just about given up, but he offers an organising presence that Browning and Clarke-Salter cannot.
Sunderland’s manager has been endearingly public about his refusal to entertain players who no longer want to be at the club. In doing so, he has smoothed the pathway for the kids to step up. That is welcomed. But if Sunderland are to avoid the disaster of a second successive relegation, they cannot rely on youth alone. The old heads have some part to play yet.