The story of Sunderland’s academy successes... and the two internationals who got away

Former Sunderland youth-team midfielder Conor Hourihane in action for the senior Republic of Ireland side
Former Sunderland youth-team midfielder Conor Hourihane in action for the senior Republic of Ireland side

The most notable element of Ireland’s narrow loss to Iceland on Tuesday night for Sunderland fans was John O’Shea’s absence through injury.

What also caught the eye, however, was the presence of two debutants in Martin O’Neill’s side – John Egan and Conor Hourihane, two former Sunderland youngsters who left, dropped into the lower tiers and have excelled ever since.

Their rise is pertinent for Elliott Dickman, who knew both well.

Dickman has recently risen to Sunderland’s Under-23s managerial role, and faces his biggest game yet when his side travel to Carrow Road for the Premier League International Cup tomorrow night.

Sunderland’s academy has boasted a number of recent successes, notably Jordan Henderson and Jordan Pickford.

The current international break has seen Elliot Embleton, Max Stryjek and Joel Asoro join up with their countries. A number of youngsters have broken through into the first team this year.

Egan and Hourihane, though, are reminders that the pathway to the first team has not always been open enough.

Dickman is not surprised they have bounced back. For him, it is about building players in Sunderland’s image, self-aware and driven, willing to learn, physically committed. Then it is down to the manager.

Unsurprisingly, Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson is seen as a prime example.

“I think, without dwelling too much on the past, when you’ve got a player of the quality Jordan possesses, he has to be a bit of a flagship for us – he’s done fantastic, he’d been at the club since eight-years-old, he possesses everything we’re talking about,” said Dickman.

“A love for the game, a passion for the game, dedicated to the game, if you’ve got the characteristics as a young player you do potentially have a future in the game.

“But it does come down to getting an opportunity that you need to be able to play in the first team.

“On the technical, tactical, mental, physical side, I think academies have improved on that side with individuals, the big thing that is very important is that it has to come from the individual.

“If that individual is willing to give everything then they’ve got half a chance.

“There’s another boy, he’s had an opportunity and has got a call up for the full Ireland squad, John Egan. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for John Egan here, but he possesses all those qualities that we’re talking about in Jordan, Duncan (Watmore).

“It is a big recruitment thing we watch for when players come in.”

Is Egan and Hourihane’s rise a source of frustration, or pride?

“Definitely [frustrating]. You ask anyone who worked with those players, they’ll tell you that they were good players with good potential, but again it comes down to the manager’s decision,” added Dickman.“The manager didn’t feel that those players were suitable for his first team. It is a tough decision to make, it really is. Anything like that, you have to respect whoever has made that call.

“The beauty about it is those two individuals, and the other ones out there, they haven’t just felt sorry for themselves and wilted away into nothing, they’ve thought ‘you know what I want a living in the game’, and, yeah, they’ve had to drop down a couple of levels.

“Conor Hourihane has had an unbelievable couple of years at Barnsley, he gets a fantastic move to Aston Villa. Same with John – he went to Gillingham, he’s got a great move (to Brentford) and is doing very well.

“It doesn’t surprise me that those two individuals have taken a step down to come forward, and hopefully they might even take another step in the next couple of years.

“It comes down to the individual. You can the greatest programme in the world, fantastic coaches, a manager who supports the whole thing, but if one individual isn’t prepared to cross that white line then and give everything they’ve got he’s always going to have an uphill climb.”

Dickman is therefore not surpised to see the likes of Lynden Gooch and Duncan Watmore make the grade – willing runners, committed to self-improvement.

“The U23 boss knows the importance of that work ethic when it comes to winning over the Sunderland support.

He said: “It’s imperative that enthusiasm, that infectiousness, to bring that to a group of players, whether it is first team, U23s, that youthfulness, sometimes it can be classed as naivety, but it is a positive thing.

“For me, it is a normal thing that the players have to have to cross the white line, it isn’t a tap that you can just turn on and off, you’ve go to give it everything every day.

“The boys you’ve mentioned, if you watch them train, they train well on a regular basis, so when they do step into the games, they do give their all.”

The Norwich game – with Porto awaiting the winners in the final – is, for Dickman, a priceless chance to see how his players respond to a pressure game, in front of a decent and hostile crowd.

It is a prime opportunity for a sizeable coup early in his tenure.

Long-term, it is about building the perfect Sunderland players for the manager to pick for.