‘Excuse me, Mr Hansen!’ Acclaiming Sunderland’s hungry young stars

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Monsieur Salut writes: Martin Crow* is a welcome addition to our ranks of contributors. He is an aspiring freelance writer and hardly unknown among Sunderland fans (check his work for ALS). In his first offering to Salut! Sunderland, he provides an astute appraisal of Saturday’s performance that properly complements Pete Sixsmith’s brilliant Soapbox, and concentrates on the generational aspects of Chris Coleman’s (OK, patchy so far but think what went before) revival.

And on a day when any proper football supporter will be mourning the death of Jimmy Armfield, a quite magnificent voice of radio, Martin starts and ends with reminders of the folly of another player-turned-broadcaster ..

Meet our new contributor, Martin Crow

When Alan Hansen delivered his infamous and dismissive verdict on Manchester United’s class of ’95 following an opening-day defeat to Aston Villa, I doubt Sunderland could have been further from his mind.

He certainly wouldn’t have been thinking about Joel Asoro, given that he wasn’t born for another four years, yet our gritty and well-deserved victory on Saturday did prove him wrong yet again. While perhaps not quite as convincing as Beckham, Scholes et al, Sunderland’s young guns proved that you can win something with kids – a relegation six-pointer with Hull City.

Although there were strong and much-improved performances across the park on Saturday, it was heartwarming to see four academy products in Honeyman, Asoro, Maja and Robson start the game, the latter putting in a commanding engine-room performance on his full debut.

Throw in a couple of fresh-faced loanees and a late substitute appearance from Goochy, and you’ve got a bunch of lads who probably weren’t allowed to stay up and watch Norwich and Chelsea’s penalties last Wednesday.

However, I doubt there are any Sunderland fans gullible enough to doubt this has all the potential to be yet another false dawn unless we can build on the positive result at St Andrew’s and beyond. So, is it realistic to expect these lads to be able to produce the goods on a regular basis?

The common opinion is probably along the lines of, “well the rest of them are rubbish so we might as well give the kids a go!”.

To be fair, it’s one that is hard to argue with. Generally, this season’s collective performances of Cattermole, O’Shea, Ndong, Kone and Vaughan have been nothing short of shambolic, so why not play the less established but hungrier players instead? Well, to put it bluntly, experience. These players have all played (and scored) in the Premier League. Two have played abroad. One is the Premier League’s youngest goalscorer. One is our record signing at £13.8m. One has a Champions League winners medal and three more Premierships than Sergio Aguero. They have the proverbial t-shirts and should be more than capable of helping us escape relegation from what is essentially, a very average league.

Assured

Well, two of them did perform against Hull. Our current and former captains both put in the assured performances they should be producing at this level, but they weren’t half helped by the young, fresh legs around them. It was no co-incidence that Cattermole (in Robson) and O’Shea (Clarke-Salter) were playing alongside young lads making their full home debuts at the tender ages of 21 and 20 respectively rather than the ageing Marc Wilson or Darren Gibson, neither of whom can provide the protective foil so essential in those key areas.

The selection of our two cans of Red Bull up front was a no-brainer, but it was mightily encouraging to see Coleman retain the faith to play both after the Cardiff debacle, rather than revert to a “Dour Davey” 4-5-1.

As for the aforementioned others, one has gone, two will hopefully follow and the less said about Jack Rodwell the better. The tragedy in this is not their potential departures, but the appalling business it would represent. Ndong, Rodwell and Kone cost £30m in transfer fees and probably another £20m in wages, fees etc and we’ll be lucky to recoup a quarter of that for players who, in age terms at least are still in their prime.

While Ndong shows the occasional glimpse and of the three, has shown the most desire and commitment to the cause, that’s like picking out the best-looking bloke on the Gallowgate.

Coleman has repeatedly stated he only wants players who want the shirt and while their replacements lack some of their undoubted attributes, their hunger to forge a career at our football club matched with significant talent of their own has been enough to convince him of their value.

One of the other major positives of playing the youngsters is our justifiably impatient fans tend to grant them more leniency than they would senior pros. As long as there is a modicum of potential on display, the SoL faithful love nothing more than giving youth a chance and anything that helps to lift the toxic atmosphere that has engulfed the stadium over the last year is refreshingly welcome.

So many teams have thrived on the negative tension around our home recently and it’s time the crowd reverted to being the catalyst for late goals we once were.

When Big Sam and his players got the crowd onside after our sensational victory over Chelsea, there was never any doubt we were going to see off Everton a few days later. I’m not saying that selection of young players on its own can transform our ground into a rocking fortress once again, but Coleman is being meticulous in his search for the little factors that can help turn the tide and he may have identified this as one of them.

Only time will tell the extent to which our gaffer’s faith in youth continues, and crucially, whether or not it pays off come May 6.

From early viewings, there is plenty of potential and quality present in the current crop and they are more than justifying their selection. Who knows, maybe next season we’ll add Woodburn and Ampadu, win the Championship and really put the second-most-annoying MOTD Alan in his place.

* Martin Crow is a freelance writer and sports enthusiast who has spent 26 years following Sunderland from near and far. He has contributed to a range of local publications including A Love Supreme, the Sunday Sun and Northern Echo and was sports editor at Newcastle University’s The Courier. He currently lives in Sunderland with his wife and daughter, whom he is having a hard time convincing that SAFC were not always this atrocious.

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