AS KEVIN Ball shared a touchline joke with Darren Williams in the early evening North Yorkshire sunshine, he could be forgiven for reminiscing on past glories in red and white.
The sight of former Sunderland team-mate and now Whitby player-manager Williams (pictured below) entering the fray for the final 20 minutes in Ball’s old holding midfield role, only added to the sense of nostalgia.
But the next generation, rather than exploits of the last, dominates Ball’s thinking these days after his first public outing as Sunderland’s new reserve team coach.
Not that the personnel at Ball’s disposal last night showed a vast difference from the side he oversaw last season.
With 10 of Sunderland’s young professionals, who will inevitably form the nucleus of the second string this year, in South Korea, the Black Cats fielded what was little more than a glorified youth team at Whitby.
Ironically though, that arguably boosted the game as a spectacle.
There could be no accusations of the visitors going through the motions, as so many professional sides do against non-league opposition in pre-season – no easy task given the bulk of Sunderland’s squad had played Hamilton Academical just 24 hours earlier.
All of those in red and white were desperate to catch Ball’s eyes and coupled with Whitby’s determination to earn some bragging rights over a Premier League outfit, the game duly unfolded as an open one with seven goals to boot.
Predictably given the age gap between the two sides, Whitby dominated the physical battle and they plundered Sunderland’s defence four times after striker Nathan Mulligan helped himself to a hat-trick – Ball presenting him with the match-ball afterwards.
But Sunderland stuck to their guns and persisted with their two-touching passing approach, increasingly finding space as proceedings wore on.
Central midfield pair Callum Hope and Liam Agnew never shirked from the physical battle, winger Nathan Thomas helped himself to a brace and right-back Andrew Cartwright coped admirably with Easington-born former Carlisle winger Jeff Smith.
“Pre-season games have a purpose and the main thing is the conditioning side of it,” said Ball. “As it goes on, it becomes more tactical and game-related. From our point of view, 10 of the development squad have gone to Korea which is fantastic.
“So there’s an opportunity there for the rest of the lads plus the scholars, to show us what they can do now.
“Technically, I think our lads can do it. They pass the ball ever so well and some of the play was fantastic.
“But the physicality will always be a problem until such they’ve finished growing themselves at 21.
“Most of them tried to compete. We asked them to challenge themselves and I thought they did that.”
Whitby broke the deadlock in the 20th minute when Smith was felled by Sunderland centre-half Lewis Gibbons as the winger darted into the area from the left. Mulligan stepped up and smashed it into the top left corner to hand Williams’ men the lead.
But Sunderland were handed a spot-kick of their own five minutes before half-time when Thomas was felled as he tried to get to the rebound after his initial effort to a ball over the top was saved by Whitby keeper Nick Liversedge. Thomas stepped up himself and slotted it low to the keeper’s right.
But within three minutes of Sunderland levelling proceedings, they were behind again after a horror show at the back.
Defender Jonathan Burn and keeper Jonathan Maddison suffered a complete lapse of communication and the Sunderland centre-half headed it beyond the goalkeeper for Mulligan to run onto and tap it into the empty net for his second.
Whitby hitman Graham Armstrong hit the post early in the second half after spinning away from Burn and trickling a shot across goal that bounced back off the woodwork.
And Sunderland profited from that good fortune in the 59th minute after Thomas pounced onto Ibraham Hassan’s slack touch and raced through on goal from the left before beating the keeper with an elegant outside of the left foot placed shot.
But Whitby took the lead for a third time in the 67th minute as Mulligan completed his hat-trick with a stunning free-kick from 25 yards.
Whitby further extended their lead two minutes later when Callum Wilson punted the ball into the box from a free-kick on the left and it was met by David Tiernan, who directed it back across goal into the far corner.
But Ball’s men reduced the deficit in the 72nd minute when Burn struck a sweet volley beyond the keeper into the far corner after Whitby failed to clear Sunderland’s corner from the left.
Substitute Jordan Laidler almost grabbed a late equaliser, but his arching volley was tipped behind by replacement stopper Ben Escritt.
WHITBY: Liversedge (Escritt 46), Hassan (James 65), Robinson (Snaith 65), Burgess, White, Tait (Williams 70), McTiernan, Portas, Armstrong (Wilson 65), Mulligan (Greener 77), Smith. Subs not used: Hampson, Horn, Emmerson, Melish.
SUNDERLAND: Maddison, Cartwright, Lane (Noble 65), Agnew (Armstrong 65), Gibbons (Ferguson 65), Burn, Holland (Mitchell 65), Hope (Joyce 65), Mandron (Laidler 65), Lawson (Honeyman 65), Thomas (Gooch 77). Sub not used: Dixon.