Bali Mumba discusses Sunderland future and Wembley dream after Checkatrade Trophy win
Sunderland youngster Bali Mumba has impressed many with his performances on the pitch this season - not least first-team manager Jack Ross.
But, following his impressive display against Notts County in the Checkatrade Trophy on Tuesday night, the teenager’s post-match interview was just as commendable as his resilient showing against the Magpies, following a 2-0 victory at the Stadium of Light.
During a lengthy 12-minute chat with members of the press it was easy to forget that Mumba has only just turned 17, as the Sunderland midfielder took his time to assess each question before delivering a thoughtful response.
After earning his debut for the Black Cats against Wolves on the final day of last season, Mumba was thrown straight into the action for Sunderland’s League One opener against Charlton back in August.
Since then the teenager has dipped in and out of the first team, with most of his game time coming for the club’s Under-23 side.
Still, the drop back down hasn’t fazed Mumba, who knows both Ross and the first-team staff only have the midfielder’s best interests at heart.
“I understand it from the manager’s point of view. He’s got a job to do, which is to get the first team promoted,” said Mumba after the Notts County game, in which he was deployed as a wing-back in a 3-5-2 formation.
“I understand what he does, but he also has to manage my game time. He always tells me I’m quite young and I’ve got a lot of time.
“I understand from that point of view, but while I’m on the bench (for the first team) I still need game time, that’s why he puts me in the Under-23s to get experience.
“That’s still a high level for me, being 17, it’s still quite a challenge for me with the physicality. I understand what he says and I respect that.”
Despite his positive outlook, Mumba has endured some frustrating moments in recent months and has played just 22 minutes in League One since starting at Luton on the second week of the season.
Even so, the fact that Mumba is disappointed he hasn’t received more minutes for the first team this campaign shows just how ambitious the teenager is.
“It’s hard for me starting two games at the start of the season and then not being able to be in the squad for quite a while,” he added.
“It’s hard mentally, but you just have to stay positive and use training as a way to get your message through to the staff, to the coaches by working hard, you want to be in the starting XI.
“I use training to try and improve, keep positive and try and push my way up.”
One option Mumba could take to gain more competitive game time would be to go out on loan.
This season another Sunderland teenager, Elliot Embleton, has impressed on loan in League Two with Grimsby Town, while first-team regulars George Honeyman and Lynden Gooch have also benefited from loan spells at lower-league clubs.
Mumba knows he may have to make a similar move sometime in the future, as he continues to develop his already-impressive game.
However, the teenager is in no rush to leave the Stadium of Light.
“Right now I think I’m at a good spot, good place, getting minutes for the under-23s and coming up for the first team,” said Mumba.
“For my age it’s a good thing to be doing, getting experience playing against bigger physical lads.
“Loan talks, I haven’t heard much yet, me and the gaffer will try and discuss it, but right now I’m in a good space.
“I think what I’m doing is enough but I want to do more. We’ll soon have that conversation and see what we want to do about loans.”
It is possible Mumba won’t need to leave the Stadium of Light to gain regular game time, and the teenager hasn’t looked out of place in his six first-team appearances this term.
Mumba has taken inspiration from his good friend Josh Maja, 19, who has established himself as a vital member of Ross’ side this campaign, as well as fellow midfielder Luke O’Nien, 25, who has waited for his chance to make a positive impression.
“It pushes me on, I want to do the same as what Luke has done, he’s taken his chance as a substitute and I’ve tried to bring that into my game,” said Mumba.
“Every time I come on, I try to impact the game, if we are defending start attacking, just change the game and make an impact so the manager sees what I’ve done.”
Age is certainly no boundary for Mumba who isn’t afraid to call-out his older and more experienced team-mates both on the pitch and in training.
The teenager is also keen to take advice from the senior players at the club, who have helped him progress in recent months.
“I still feel like one of the younger ones, but it’s just normal really for me,” added Mumba.
“They’re always looking after me and helping me out. My age doesn’t really come into it, but once I step back I realise I’m young.
“I try to get involved because the more you’re comfortable with them, the more you can build a relationship.
“People don’t like someone who’s shy and doesn’t speak. Every team wants people to be up for it and able to chat to them comfortably, as I would with people my age.
“That’s what I try to have in mind – to get involved and have fun with them. Then you can build a relationship that can last off the pitch and on it.”
The Notts County win was Mumba’s first appearance in the Checkatrade Trophy, as the midfielder missed Sunderland’s trip to Morecambe when he was on international duty with England Under-18s.
While opening up an opportunity to play for the senior side, the competition has also given Mumba an incentive to reach a Wembley final in March.
The Black Cats are just three games away from a trip to the national stadium, where Mumba has dreamed of playing throughout his childhood.
“It’s crazy. I’ve watched all the games at Wembley, especially cup finals, always thinking, ‘Just one day - when can it come?’
“To have that opportunity right now is a blessing for me. I’m really excited.
“That’s why I want the team to keep pushing, keep working hard until we get there. That would be a dream.”