PLAYED 13, lost 13. Played 16, lost 15. Those are the stark records of Sunderland’s under-18s and under-23s teams this season, leading to the almost inevitable perception that the club’s youth system is failing.

Among the results are a 10-0 defeat to Everton and 7-0 to Man City, the under-23s last winning a league game 12 months ago this week, while August 2018 was the under-18s previous victory.

The set-up where this season’s Premier League title-winning skipper, Jordan Henderson, took his first steps in the game as well as England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, is, from afar at least, in the mire.

While results are essentially all that matters to Phil Parkinson’s team, anyone who uses the same metric to gauge progress at youth level may have been surprised by this week’s news that the club has retained its proud status as an elite academy.

They remain in category one under the Elite Player Performance Plan, Sunderland unique in being the only League One club playing at under-18 and under-23 level against Premier League heavyweights, and it’s a huge boost says academy director Paul Reid.

“Going down to category two or three, you would lose staff which would have an effect on the programme you’re able to deliver.

“It would have an impact on players leaving – if clubs came in for our players we would’ve got a vastly reduced compensation package, we’d also struggle recruitment-wise when you’ve got two category one clubs in Newcastle and Middlesbrough.

“The games programme would’ve been vastly different, there’s not the prestige in playing the category two clubs as there currently is in playing against the likes of Liverpool and Man City.

“Your reputation as a category one academy, it makes it easier when you’re talking to parents of players. You can say it is a leading academy, it is one of the top academies in the country next to the top clubs.”

Retaining category one status means the club’s academy will continue to receive financial support from the Premier League – it costs around £4m a year to run.

It also means validation. Confirmation, as far as Reid is concerned, that Sunderland are doing the best they can in the circumstances. “Controlling the controllables,” he says.

Academy audits are every three years, with clubs ranked one to four. Category one clubs must demonstrate to independent auditors from the Premier League they are providing a pathway to senior football, the best coaching and facilities for their rising talents.

Sunderland’s rising talents, however, despite the academy’s status, are being beaten most weeks and fans are understandably concerned, with each result met on social media by a mixture of derision and frustration, Reid often bearing the brunt.

He has been in the job around 18 months, and is eager to use the confirmation of “cat one”, as it’s informally known, as an opportunity to explain the bigger picture at the club’s Academy of Light.

“It is not an acceptance and it is not excuses, but there are factors contributing towards this,” he says, when asked about the run of defeats. “The under-23s, we’ve got almost a perfect storm.

“We have a club that has found itself in League One, so the better younger players have moved up into the first-team squad, we have a smaller first-team squad so the those younger players don’t drop down into the 23s, and we believe it is better for the 23s to go out and get first-team experience on loan. While they go on loan it devalues the under-23s team itself.

“The reality is we are not strong enough to do all that at under-23 level when it isn’t a level playing field against the Liverpools and even the Derbys and Aston Villas.

“The alternative is those players don’t go out on loan.”

He adds: “None of us are enjoying watching the under-18s and under-23s not pick up results, it affects the players, the staff, it affects morale, nobody wants that. Although winning isn’t important – winning the under-23 league doesn’t win you anything – but we want to be more competitive.

“That’s what we’re talking about with the recruitment department, to try and make us more competitive. But if we want to promote players into the first team – I see that as a major part of the academy – and allow players to go out on loan then the reality is that it’s going to be difficult.”

Reid does not sugar coat the situation when it comes to both attracting and retaining talented teens. As well as competing for the best youngsters in the North-East with Newcastle United and Middlesbrough, both fellow category one clubs, Reid acknowledges there is a financial fight with clubs across the country.

“We might identify a player coming out of Liverpool of Man City as someone who would add value to our 23s and push into our first team, but we can be priced out of the market – the competition will offer these players three-year contracts without even seeing them on money we don’t pay our first-team players.

“We can try and sell the club as best we can, we can talk about the path into the first team, but ultimately when it comes down to the cold hard facts we’re sometimes unable to convince them that this is the right place to be.”

One player who did not feel Sunderland was the right place to be was Logan Pye, the teenage left-back recently joining Manchester United. Others have joined Premier League clubs such as Arsenal and Liverpool.

“It’s a constant challenge and an accumulation of where the club has found itself, which is League One,” admits Reid. “We’ve got strategies in place to keep our high potential players, some have been receptive to that and some haven’t.

“It’s not a case of waiting for offers to come in or actively seeking these offers. We are approached by agents who are facilitating these deals, and at that point has the player got a decision to make.

“Anyone who leaves this club, we will be confident in saying we have done all we can to try and retain that talent. When a club finds itself in League One and a Premier League club comes calling it is a decision for the player.”

As crucial as coaching is, recruiting the right players to begin with is clearly key too, and it’s an area Reid has made paramount.

Some staff have moved on, and he recently welcomed back former academy director Ged McNamee as head of recruitment.

Reid explained: “Recruitment was one of the big things I wanted to change. It’s different at first-team level, if you want to change players you can move them in and out. With the recruitment department I’ve been given the authority to structure it the way I want.

“We’ve brought in Ged McNamee, who everyone will know. It might be seen by some as a bit of a left-field appointment, but I think it’s a brave appointment. “He’s someone that knows the club inside out, he knows my role inside out and he knows what it takes to develop players through the academy.

“To work alongside him there are still two full-time roles and another role that I’m looking to implement very soon.

“There will be some national scouts to get coverage of games across the country, and possibly beyond. The recruitment department will look completely different in six-eight weeks.”

One Sunderland official compared the audit of the club’s academy as being similar to an Ofsted inspection, and Sunderland certainly appear to have passed the test.

Reid explained: “The process started in mid-November, you get ten days’ notice to say that the auditors are coming in and it is a very detailed, forensic examination of the academy, in terms of the recruitment process, the coaching, the analysis, the medical provision, the strategy and vision you’ve got for the academy.

“For me, I hope it’s validation that we are controlling the controllables, that we are delivering an elite programme, and the Premier League have independently verified it.”