SUNDERLAND will board their flight to the sunny climes of Portugal tomorrow morning with little more than half the building blocks in place.
Gus Poyet again made scant effort to mask his frustration last night at the lack of incomings since the hat-trick of Bosman arrivals at the start of the summer.
The Uruguayan had pinpointed the nine days in the Algarve as THE pivotal spell for Sunderland to form the necessary relationships among the new-look squad for the upcoming campaign.
Unless Sunderland act very quickly in the transfer market, there will be little chance of that, albeit Poyet made optimistic sounds last night of having one signing completed by tomorrow.
But, on the flip-side of the coin, the threadbare options at Poyet’s disposal have provided opportunities.
There hasn’t been a reprieve for those destined to leave the club this summer.
No, they have all had the air of players going through the motions.
Yet those young guns on the books at the Stadium of Light have grasped the nettle with some style and emphatically demonstrated that there is talent hovering below the first team at the club.
For Poyet, who has taken a keen interest in the Under-18 and Under-21 sides since his appointment, that will not go unnoticed.
The performances in the final 30 minutes at both Carlisle on Tuesday and again at Hartlepool United last night from the 11 members of the U21 squad have been superb.
The kids rightly stole the plaudits at Victoria Park and predictably spawned discussions about whether any could be fast-tracked into the first team.
The reality is that they are nowhere near ready for the Premier League. These are kids bursting with hunger and enthusiasm who have been able to take advantage of tiring League Two sides.
What will benefit them is to join a League Two side on loan and they will all have helped themselves in that regard. Carlisle boss Graham Kavanagh went to Victoria Park last night just so he could have a second look at these rookies.
But for those Sunderland youngsters a little further on in their development – El-Hadji Ba and Duncan Watmore – they are giving Poyet something to genuinely consider regarding the first team.
Winger Watmore has been shoehorned into a right-back role, yet has still managed to show the determination and directness which have seen him shine at U21 level.
A Pools side which contained ex-Sunderland midfielder Tommy Miller as a trialist barely tested Watmore defensively and gave him far too much licence to get forwards, yet he still proved a constant thorn.
But it was Ba who was the pick of Sunderland’s bunch during a first half which was far brighter than the heavy-legged display from the first-teamers at Carlisle.
The young Frenchman drove forward positively from midfield and delivered a couple of stellar passes, even if he displayed that evident rawness at times.
After Luke James had given Sunderland a scare inside the opening 60 seconds, Ba pounced on a loose ball in the 16th minute and threaded a perfectly weighted pass down the left-hand channel for Steven Fletcher, whose shot across goal was too hot to be held cleanly by Pools keeper Scott Flinders.
There was another excellent pass from Ba shortly afterwards when he picked out Adam Johnson, making his first appearance of pre-season following an ankle injury, on the right-hand touchline with a raking crossfield ball.
Johnson’s first touch was immaculate to get away from left-back Darren Holden, but he sent his shot a couple of feet over the top after cutting inside.
The woodwork then denied the Black Cats midway through the half after Brad Walker’s awful pass left the visitors with a two-on-one.
Johnson played a reverse pass to Fletcher, to the right of goal, but his shot across the face bounced off the outside of the far post.
Sunderland, backed by more than 3,000 travelling fans, attempted to build up a head of steam after the interval, just as the youngsters were getting ready to be introduced from the bench.
But the closest they came was when trialist Max Clayton, who again did not look out of place, cut inside off the left and unleashed a powerful cross-cum-shot which just evaded the head of Fletcher.
The 11 homegrown products of Sunderland’s academy were introduced en masse to a rousing ovation in the 62nd minute and they didn’t disappoint.
In fact, they clicked up another gear or two from Carlisle to rip through the Pools defence three times in a devastating eight-minute spell.
It was football from Poyet’s own heart – one and two-touch stuff with an ever-present stress on keeping possession, with George Honeyman proving to be the conductor extraordinaire in the “number 10” role.
The 71st minute opener was a real thing of beauty.
Sunderland produced a spell of sustained one and two-touch possession football on the edge of the Pools box before Mikael Mandron laid it off to Carl Lawson, who swept the ball elegantly into the far corner from 18 yards.
The Black Cats doubled their advantage two minutes later when Lynden Gooch fed the overlapping Cartwright down the right-hand side of the area and the full-back managed to bring it under control before poking it beyond Flinders from six yards out.
It was 3-0 five minutes later, as Cartwright’s right-wing cross deflected off ex-Boro defender Matthew Bates and wrong-footed Flinders.
Fair play to the kids.
They have been granted a few minutes to impress Poyet and they have collectively taken that opportunity in some style.
It is just the first step for them though. Now comes that awkward stage of seeing how many can make the leap from prospect to genuine first-team material.
Since Jordan Henderson and Jack Colback, that is not a feat Sunderland have managed well.
But for those now on the fringes of Poyet’s plans – the likes of Ba and Watmore – they aren’t doing their chances of genuine Premier League contention any harm whatsoever.
In a pre-season campaign which leaves Poyet increasingly frustrated, that is a silver lining.
HARTLEPOOL: Flinders, Duckworth, Austin, Bates, Holden, Parnaby, Miller, Walker, Harewood (Franks 46), James, Compton (Smith 74) Subs not used: Rafferty, Woods, Rowbotham, Nearney, Hawkins, Jones.
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon (Pickford 62), Watmore (Cartwright 62), Roberge (Harrison 62), O’Shea (Beadling 62), Ferguson (T Robson 62), Cattermole (Smith 62), Larsson (Agnew 62), Ba (Honeyman 62), Clayton (Lawson 62), Johnson (Gooch 62), Fletcher (Mandron 62)
Attendance: 5,617 (3,252 away)