A HIGHLIGHTS reel was presented to Sunderland’s Under-21 squad prior to their final competitive outing of the campaign.
Kevin Ball’s men were shown their best bits on the DVD, coupled with the pre-recorded objectives they set for themselves at the start of the season.
There were some predictable aims:
* Make a Football League debut on loan.
* Make the first-team bench.
* Make a first-team debut.
All of those have been fulfilled by various members of Ball’s squad this season.
But Sunderland will agonisingly miss out on their last objective of finishing in the top five of the U21 Premier League after suffering a last-gasp 2-1 defeat against West Ham yesterday.
Victory would have given Sunderland a chance of finishing in the top four and qualifying for the end-of-season play-offs, albeit they would have been dependent on results elsewhere.
But even if they had missed out on the play-offs, the Black Cats would almost certainly have achieved that top-five goal.
After seeing centre-half Tom McNamee head into his own net in injury time at the Academy of Light though, Ball admits he felt sorry for his players; insisting the conclusion to the campaign was not a fair reflection of what had gone before.
“You want them to achieve it all and we’ve had people play for the first team and get on the bench, but they might not get top five, unfortunately,” said Ball.
“It wasn’t the end I would have liked for the players because I think they’ve had a smashing season.
“It just wasn’t to be their day.”
Sunderland were given a debatable 13th-minute penalty after Dan Potts looked to have won the ball when he brought down Mikael Mandron on the right-hand side of the area, following a good piece of control and through-ball from Rees Greenwood.
But Mandron set aside the protests of the West Ham players and coolly slotted the ball into the bottom right-hand corner, sending keeper Sam Howes the wrong way.
The first half had been a drab affair, yet the Hammers almost levelled on the stroke of half-time when midfielder Sebastian Lletget curled a left-footed shot just past the post from the edge of the area.
West Ham did equalise in the 56th minute when Matthias Fanimo pulled back a dangerous low ball from the left-hand touchline and Josh Cullen got between the two Sunderland centre-halves to divert the ball over the line from point-blank range.
On the hour mark, Sunderland had a great chance to regain the lead when Alex Gorrin played an excellent slide-rule pass into the path of Mandron, to the left of goal, just outside the box.
But, with the West Ham defenders closing him down, Mandron was forced to take his left-footed shot early and it was blocked well by the legs of Howes.
Neither side had threatened to get a winner, but, in the second minute of stoppage time, substitute Kieran Bywater crossed from the right and McNamee glanced the ball on and into the top corner of his own net.
Ball believes a draw would have been a fair result, particularly as he was without several players either on loan, trial, injured or, in the case of Liam Agnew, Martin Smith, Charis Mavrias and El-Hadji Ba, drafted into the first-team squad.
“We had plenty of mitigating circumstances. It wasn’t the ideal preparation for this game,” he added.
“Jordan Watson played his first 90 minutes for two years. Alex Gorrin has only been back two days after being out for 12 weeks.
“But you have to go with what you’ve got and, for the majority of the game, they did it.
“I would have taken a point, but, at the end of the game, the cross came in and the keeper wasn’t sure if he’d called.
“It’s a shame because it will bug him.”
SUNDERLAND: Dixon, Cartwright, Watson, Gorrin (E Robson 65), McNamee, Beadling, Grenwood, Oliver, Mandron, Laidler, T Robson (Ledger 84). Subs not used: Talbot, Blinco, Sukar. Booked: Mandron (20), McNamee (32)
WEST HAM: Howes, Driver, Mavila, Lletget, Potts, Harney, Fanimo, Whitehead, Brown (Bywater 70), Cullen (Makasi 84), Sadlier. Subs not used: Burke, Nemrava