Sunderland U21 winger can be the next player to graduate to the first-team
Sunderland's development of homegrown talent was much-maligned in the barren years following the crop of Jordan Henderson, Jack Colback and Martyn Waghorn.
The likes of John Egan, Billy Knott and Blair Adams have all been able to forge successful Football League careers after leaving the Stadium of Light, yet never made a first-team impression for Sunderland and were released when potential alone wasn’t enough to keep them at the club.
But this season has been the best one for the academy structure in five years.
Duncan Watmore was handed his Premier League bow by Dick Advocaat, before earning a first top flight start when Sam Allardyce took the reins.
Jordan Pickford - a Sunderland player from the age of eight - then became the first homegrown local prospect since Colback to graduate to the starting XI.
Both should play an even more prominent role for Sunderland next season, regardless of which division the Black Cats are languishing in.
But who is next off the production line?
Lynden Gooch impressed on his debut in August’s Capital One Cup win over Exeter and the American will reap the rewards from spending the second half of the season at Doncaster, albeit his loan spell came to an abrupt end through injury last month.
But in the second half of the season, winger Rees Greenwood has been the player who has stood out for a Sunderland side who remain at the summit of the Under-21 Premier League.
Greenwood made his debut for England Under-20s during the last international break and after the 20-year-old has travelled with the first-team squad on several occasions this season, development coach Andy Welsh believes he can force his way into Allardyce’s thinking next year.
“It gave Rees a lot of confidence to go away with the England squad,” said Welsh.
“He played well in the games.
“Ged McNamee (academy manager) has spoken to Keith Downing (England U20 coach) and we’ve got a lot of feedback on his performance.
“The level of some of the players there is very high.
“We’ve had some very good feedback, and his next stage now is to finish the season as he’s doing.
“And then next season look to involve him as much as we can in the first-team area.
“Hopefully he’ll do that. He certainly has the quality.
“It was wonderful to have George Honeyman and Tommy Robson in the first-team squad last weekend.
“Rees, Lynden, Duncan and Jordan Pickford are all around that first-team group, so the academy is performing very well.”
If Sunderland are relegated, then the importance of those in the U21 ranks will increase significantly.
It is understood that the final decisions on those to be released at the end of the season are currently on ice until it is known which division Sunderland are playing in, with their chances of playing inevitably growing if the Black Cats are in the Championship.
But Greenwood is one who will be in the first-team frame after being recognised as the U21 Premier League Player of the Month for February.
He still needs to work on his end product though after that has been area which Welsh has persistently identified over recent weeks for extra attention.
“We’ve just got to keep working a lot on his end product. He still has to make better decisions in and around the box,” he said.
“But you can see he’s got so much natural ability.
“He just needs to grow up a little bit more; find a bit of maturity and strength.
“But we’re hoping he’s going to be a success at Sunderland in the years to come.”