Phil Smith: Youngsters will get chances in Sunderland's new plan for the future
When a youngster thrives in a pre-season setting, caution is always advisable.
So it was with Joel Asoro, superb in the early days of David Moyes’ reign but over a year on, still to make a substantial contribution to the first XI.
This summer it was the turn of Josh Maja to impress, notable not just because of his technical prowess, which you would expect for a player of his background, but also because of the way he was able to hold the ball up and compete physically with some robust Scottish and lower league defenders.
That bodes well as the 18-year-old nears a return to first team action, even if he is yet to make a senior appearance in competitive football.
In the short-term, his successful integration into the first team set-up would offer Simon Grayson with another vital option to bring off a bench that has been one-paced and limited too often this season. Another player, like Duncan Watmore, who can stretch defences. His quality with back to goal, however, also makes him a natural second striker and such versatility will serve him well as he takes his first steps in professional football.
Maja’s success, or otherwise, may also have more far-reaching consequences in the coming years.
In around 18 months, he has gone from a young player signed at nominal cost to a genuine contender for a first team place. If he succeeds, he will be a crucial part of the first team squad, potentially for a number of years, and have a hefty sell-on potential to boot.
When new Academy Director Jimmy Sinclair spoke of recruiting players in the 16-23 age group, a traditional ‘black hole’ for many clubs, and getting them ready to compete for the first team squad within two years, it was hard not to see Maja as a perfect example.
Marrying that with an obvious focus on local talent is crucial if the Black Cats are going to compete with the traditional powerhouses of UK football, many of whom in recent years have flooded the academy market with exorbitant investment.
The end result of is players like Maja, well coached and with superb technical ability, but with little to no chance of first team progression at a club like Manchester City.
For clubs like Sunderland, every year will see a raft of talented players come onto the market, their value not remotely reflected in their ability and potential for growth.
Many forward-thinking clubs are ahead of the curve in this sense. Brentford dissolved their academy altogether, instead creating a ‘B’ team of cast-off players from Premier League academies and overseas markets traditionally ‘undervalued’, with the aim of bringing them into the first team squad in a three-year period.
For Sunderland, such radical action is far from necessary, facing nowhere near the strength of competition for their local talent as the Bees did in the capital.
Besides, the likes of Jordan Pickford and Jordan Henderson are the raison d’etre for the academy and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. On a lesser scale, the hope is that Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman can carry that proud tradition into Sunderland’s near future.
In Maja and Duncan Watmore, however, we may get a glimpse of a very different kind of youth development that may soon seem like the norm.