Stellar Sunderland: A youthful 2022/23…
Twenty minutes into the FA Cup Fourth Round tie with Premier League opposition, the early signs suggested it would be a costly trip to the capital no matter the result.
It was the second time this season that hearts were in mouths regarding Ross Stewart. Sunderland’s goal-getter now strewn on the turf clutching his Achilles. A thigh injury in September meant Stewart spent fifteen games on the sidelines earlier in the campaign, a period not forgotten by the travelling Black Cats in the Craven Cottage away end.
Else We’ll Have To Play 18 League Games With Kids
A mounting injury list saw 15-year-old Chris Rigg come off the bench against Fulham that day. Although the youngest of Sunderland’s playing staff to feature for Tony Mowbray this season, he’s only one of what seems like an army of fresh-faced components within the camp.
Chris Rigg complimented a starting eleven that consisted of 8/11 aged 23 or younger. Amad Diallo (20), Edouard Michut (20), Trai Hume (21), Dan Neil (21), Jack Clarke (22), Ajibola-Joshua Alese (22), Daniel Ballard (23), and Anthony Patterson (23) between the sticks plus four other subs in said age bracket.
Mowbray mentioned in the post-match press conference, which flirted perilously close to the end of the January transfer window, that incomings were necessary;
“We need reinforcements, else we’ll have to play [the remaining] 18 league games with kids.”Tony Mowbray
Joe Gelhardt (20) filled a hole, although he arrived just before Mowbray’s men (boys) headed to Craven Cottage. The Leeds youngster added a touch of quality to the attacking third after Everton recalled seven-goal Ellis Simms. However, he didn’t arrive with the experience the head coach was seeking. It would have to do. Mowbray would need to harness what he could from an inexperienced blend of raw quality and fearlessness.
As Immature As It Gets
Looking back over the course of the Championship season, it’s no surprise to see that Sunderland fielded the youngest eleven. The 1-2 victory at The Hawthorns in April not only gave their promotion hopes a seismic boost, but the average age of those on the field equated to just 22.5 years old.
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Only two players who started against West Brom were older than 22. Lynden Gooch (27) and Luke O’Nien (28) – the two elder statesmen of the group. To field such a young team is one thing, but to wrestle three points from a promotion rival is another entirely. The Black Cats fielded eight of the youngest sides the division has seen in 2022/23. Only two Swansea City outfits rounds off a Sunderland-heavy top ten of most-youthful elevens.
Interestingly, Wigan Athletic under Leam Richardson posted the highest average age of 30.3 (vs Cardiff City in August). League One-bound Reading FC (29.9 vs Millwall in November), who will join the Latics in the third tier, were the side regularly tussling with Wigan in the average age stakes. They may be blessed with experience and games under their belt, but the Championship proved a step too far as a collective.
A three-week period nearer the end of February encouraged four losses in five for Sunderland. But, apart from that, the following 18 games couldn’t have gone much better. The Black Cats finished the season boasting a nine-game unbeaten stretch, handing Sunderland a playoffs bout.
Tony Mowbray will receive the plaudits aplenty for steering this young team within inches of the Premier League. However, it’s the movement behind the scenes which has flourished into something we now see on the pitch.
Head of Recruitment Stuart Harvey joined Sunderland in 2021 under the gaze of Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman. Since then, we’ve seen a clear focus on youth and an enthusiastic approach to sensible risk-taking in the transfer market. Such transfer activity has positioned the Black Cats into a club willing to nurture. Others are now taking note. As a result, Sunderland are proving to be a place where talent can not only feature, but also flourish. It’s an environment where minutes will follow if there’s a buy-in from the player.
Dennis Cirkin from Spurs, and Aji Alese and Pierre Ekwah from West Ham highlight such risk-taking. The aforementioned three are a selection which best represents Sunderland’s revamped method in the tricky world of player recruitment. The type of talent littered throughout academies in England and further afield who are not yet tried or tested but possess the raw talent to step up if there was an organisation out there willing to take such a gamble.
That youthful blend up north, equipped with a surging belief that they’re as good as anyone in this division, made waves in reaching the playoffs. Despite an injury crisis that would’ve crippled most clubs, Mowbray delivered a home win over Luton in the first leg. Goals from Diallo and Hume on either side of half-time offering a fighting chance of returning to the big time.
If you’d have offered Mowbray the chance for Sunderland to be sniffing around the playoffs whilst he was taking questions during Craven Cottage’s presser, he’d have bitten your hand off. And most likely have chuckled throughout the trek back home. Unfortunately for this fearless bunch, Luton Town at home proved once step too tall. Sunderland’s gaze will not fall on Wembley’s arch this campaign.
Luton’s physicality coupled with Sunderland being second-best in both boxes ushered a 2-0 Kenilworth Road win to the fore. Remarkably, murmurs of discontent around the gaffer’s position followed the tie. Considering the job he has done with the injury-inflicted resources available after Alex Neil’s departure, the talk alone feels distasteful.
You’ll never win anything with kids, Graeme Souness famously once peddled. Yet, Mowbray’s kids, with the inclusion of summer acquisition Jobe Bellingham pictured above, may be on to something.
Stellar Sunderland: A youthful 2022/23…