A combination of Livingston’s early exit from the Scottish Cup and some decent fare deals from East Coast opened up another opportunity to break new ground in the north east of England last Saturday.
I’ve grown fond of this part of the world, ever since I started to discover its football during a period of working on and off in Sunderland a few years back.
Wherever possible I like to make the trip more worthwhile by seeing a couple of games, taking this to an extreme back in October when I took in my first ever organised ‘groundhop’ with four Northern League games in a day.
I was flagging by the time the final game came round on that occasion, but I find two games nice and manageable, and on Bank Holidays in particular there’s usually plenty of options.
Discovering that the English Premier League’s Under 18 competition has many of its fixtures on Saturday mornings opened up the opportunity for another double this time, and a chance to check out another top class training facility.
Sunderland’s Academy of Light is situated just north of the city itself, close to the village of Cleadon.
It’s easily accessible by car, but as a non-driver (currently learning!) getting there in time for the 11am kick off of Sunderland against Middlebrough involved a walk from East Boldon Metro, a mile and a bit away. The weather was decent and Cleadon is a nice enough area, so that was no great hardship.
The Academy is described on the Sunderland AFC website as a ‘very private place’, and I was slightly concerned that they might make admission to the Under 18 fixture difficult.
Happily, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Together with probably a hundred others, I was directed by a succession of smartly dressed stewards from the Parents Entrance to the complex to the training pitches where the respective Under 16 and Under 18 sides of the Wear and Tees rivals were in action side-by-side.
One small inconvenience and oddity on that journey was that all visitors are compelled to put blue plastic protectors over their shoes whilst in the Academy’s innards, putting them on at one door and removing them again before going outside.
Whilst inside it is clear that this is a first class facility – beautifully decorated, well maintained and with everything covered in the club’s official branding.
It appears to contain everything that a Premier League club would need, including an indoor pitch to use when the weather is grim.
The myriad of grass pitches are separated from the buildings by Teletubbyland style grass mounds and a tunnel displaying yet more club branding and motivational slogans, presumably to inspire the many teenagers who take their first steps to what they hope will be superstardom here.
Despite the recent bout of very wet weather, the two pitches that were in use on Saturday were in tip-top condition, so my other fear – postponement – was completely unfounded.
The Under 18 game I watched was on a pitch that was railed on four sides with no spectator facilities. As luck would have it, it was a dry morning, if a bit windy.
Most of the crowd congregated on the side that bordered the second pitch, where the Under 16 game kicked off a few minutes ahead of their elder clubmates’ 11am start. The second pitch was roped off only on one side, and the attention of those sandwiched between the pitches was divided fairly equally between the two games.
Although there were some people around wearing club colours, the majority of spectators seemed to be related to the players.
Aside from checking out the palatial facilities, I wanted to see how the standard of play compared with similar games north of the border. This season I’ve been to quite a few SPFL Under 20 League games, and have often been impressed with the football on display.
Whether the fact that it was a derby added a different complexion to the game I can’t be sure, but the game was much less technical and much more physical than I expected.
My only previous game in this competition was a couple of seasons back when I saw a superlative young Crystal Palace side destroy Middlesbrough on their training ground at Rockcliffe Park. I was blown away by Palace that day.
Neither Sunderland or Boro were able to live up to those lofty standards on Saturday. A willingness to pass the ball on the deck was evident, but all too often players were caught in possession, or were guilty of resorting to speculative balls into the channels for forwards to chase rather than keeping the ball.
Those of you who enjoy the more direct, up and at ’em style of football will probably think that’s no bad thing, but in the context of what should be a safe developmental environment, I thought it was a bit desperate.
What was positive for me was the fact that the game was competitively contested, rather than a glorified training game. With some degree of local pride at stake, both teams clearly wanted to win.
Sunderland did so, by a 2-0 scoreline that I felt was deserved. I was impressed by one or two of the Boro players – especially their strong running number ten Scott McCarthy – but they overplayed in the final third and as a result didn’t test the Black Cats’ keeper enough.
The home side scored their opener midway through the first half, a nice left footed finish from Dan Wright. They later sealed their win with a 75th minute penalty which was perfectly converted by Martin Smith after a foul in the box.
As comfortable as Sunderland’s win was come the end, as I put on my shoe protectors, took them off again and wandered out of the Academy of Light towards the second game of the day, I wasn’t convinced that I’d seen any stand out players capable of breaking through to play in the senior Premier League any time soon.
So whilst the Academy of Light impressed me hugely, the current Under 18 side might struggle to make a return on the sizeable investment made by their club in facilities. Time will tell.
Scoring: 1-0 Wright, 2-0 Smith
Attendance: 50 (approx)
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