A LARGE part of Sunderland’s success story last season stemmed from the youthfulness of the side from the first half of the campaign. Until it came to the crunch after the new year.

Alex Neil’s intervention saw fit to pull the youngsters, the likes of Dan Neil, Elliot Embleton and Callum Doyle, out of the side citing both physical and mental fatigue. The players had taken too much on. However, Neil wasn’t adverse to using youngsters with Anthony Patterson claiming the spot between the sticks while Dennis Cirkin, Jay Matete and Jack Clarke were all heavily involved.

Some of their problems with the age profile of the side were there for all to see and striking the right balance between youthfulness and experience is something Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman is keen to achieve for next season.

At the start of the campaign, there seemed to be a conscious effort to lower the age profile of the squad. While it did bring about some exciting attacking football, Sunderland were easy to undress at the back and conceded too many goals.

The age of the player is the obvious marker for what teams will be looking for when it comes to experience but it’s not as cut and dry as their age. Speakman explained how they had been driven in their recruitment drive by a different type of data: “Age and experience is not always as easy as that. You can have some very experienced 20-year-olds that have played two years in the Champions League. Probably not the ones for us next year, don’t want to raise expectations on that!

“It’s about what experiences those players have had. We spent a lot of time in player recruitment discussing around ‘someone could be old but they’ve not played’. For example, take Sunderland. Last year in League One, we’re playing in front of 35,000 people. We’re taking an experienced player but in actual fact, they’ve never played in front of that amount of people. So their experiences, even though they are 28, aren’t really relevant for this scenario.

“But you might take Jack Clarke who has played for Leeds in front of a really lively crowd, under pressure and at Tottenham. Then you go ‘he’ll be absolutely comfortable in that environment’.

“We wanted to get a balance. Maybe it’s a slight miscommunication on our behalf which we will apologise for. There is some science and data of where those teams that perform are. You can be older and have a really good succession plan. We’re just trying to get the balance right.

“At times this year, we have been too young. I’ve been on record saying that. But in previous times we have been too old and we haven’t quite got the needle right and maybe that has affected our overall performance. We have to take criticism for that, which is fine.

“That’s the difficulty when you go through transition because we only have the transfer windows today and they are six months apart and you need three or four of them. I’ve had three transfer windows here and I’d like to think if people were going to be critical about the group and lowering the age profile, they would have to say we’ve got some really talented players in our group and we’ve got some older more experienced players that are fundamental to that success and we’ve got some young up-and-coming players that are fundamental to that success. That’s the balance we’ve got to get.

“We’ve just got to make sure that there is enough balance, the coach has got enough choice based on injuries, form to make sure we have got the right eleven.”

While inevitably the club achieved their ultimate goal of promotion, there are plenty of other success stories to take away from the campaign.

Dan Neil’s breakthrough season has caught the eye and he won the North-East Sports Writers Young Player of the Year award for 2021. Elliot Embleton returned to the team after winning promotion with Blackpool to add attacking prowess to the midfield scoring nine goals for the season, including his striker in the play-off final. Anthony Patterson took the gloves off Thorben Hoffman and didn’t look out of place as Sunderland’s number one keeping eight clean sheets.

Dropping down to League One four years ago threw many financial problems Sunderland’s way but through that period, they managed to keep hold of their academy which has proved to be integral to this season’s success.

“After what happened to Sunderland in the last five years, no other club in this country is going to go through that period of time and retain a category one academy. It’s unique” Speakman continued.

“Because it means so much to the people that they’ve got that environments for those elite players to go to in the North-East. Kyril (Louis-Dreyfus) is absolutely fundamentally put academy football, youth development, young players, aspirational culture at the heart of what we are doing. Naturally, we want to see those players come through.

“You’ve got (Anthony) Patterson that we laid out a development programme for. He’s come through and we’ve given him loads of different experiences. He’s developed, he’s worked his way into the team on his own merit and performances and he’s out there on Wembley as another local boy.

“We’ve got a lovely balance in the group around some of our young players and our senior group. We’ve got to try and maintain that balance moving forward.”