When Joel Asoro burst onto the first-team scene at the beginning of last season, there were high hopes that he could be the next star to emerge from the Sunderland academy.
Reports of interest from the likes of PSG, Arsenal and others hinted at a rich talent that Sunderland would do well to hold onto.
It didn’t quite pan out that way, Asoro’s progress seemingly stagnating as he made brief appearances in the Carabao Cup without ever really threatening to permanently break into the first-team fold.
In the Under-23 set-up, he impressed, but arguably not as much as Josh Maja, who emerged as a serious talent and seized his opportunity under Simon Grayson in pre-season.
Under Grayson’s successor, Chris Coleman, both have an opportunity to turn their talent into a genuine first-team career on Wearside.
Injuries and suspensions have undoubtedly forced his hand, but Coleman has already made good on his promise to throw the youngsters into the thick of Championship action, providing they prove to him they are good enough.
At the Pirelli Stadium last weekend, Asoro was given his chance and took it emphatically.
He was on the pitch for only 10 minutes but was a crucial factor in Sunderland turning their dominance of territory and possession into the crucial goals to beat Burton Albion 2-0.
Most importantly, he followed his manager’s instructions to a letter in order to do so.
“I said to him ‘get on the pitch and run past the full-back,” Coleman said.
“‘If you lose it, you lose it, but be direct and get in behind and get some crosses in’.
“I just felt that Burton were on the back foot a little bit and we were coming on strong.
“He did exactly that and I was really happy with him.”
A suspension for James Vaughan and a number of injuries to Sunderland’s first-choice attacking options means that Asoro, and Maja, will get a chance to make an impact against Jaap Stam’s Reading at the Stadium of Light tomorrow as the Black Cats looks to draw a line under their woeful home form in 2017.
Coleman hopes that the exposure to competitive first-team action sparks progression in the pair, but he has warned them that they still have everything to prove in the game.
He said: “There’s nothing like playing in the first team – whether it is in League One, League Two, the Championship, wherever – playing first-team men’s football, there’s nothing like it.
“If you are young, you need to get out and do it.
“Everyone says that the U23 league is the next best thing. I couldn’t disagree more, personally.
“It’s not reality.
“If you are a good young player, you get on the pitch playing for a professional team, in a professional match, where the points mean everything.
“Either you can handle that or you can’t.
“Joel has come on and I was very impressed with him.
“He took it in his stride.
“He wasn’t worried about Villa Park, then, at Burton, he knew we had to get a result and he just went on and did his stuff.
“He played his part, both in possession and out of possession.
“He has a lot of hard work to do – as all our young players do.
“I said to some of the Wales players who had five caps but were 19 or 20, I said they shouldn’t think of themselves as a professional footballer yet – you’ve still got it all in front of you.
“You have so much hard work to do just to maintain it, never mind get better.”
Maja will make his professional debut should he feature against Reading, having seen a superb pre-season campaign curtailed by a serious knee injury.
Coleman has been impressed by what he has seen of the former Manchester City man so far, particularly the way he has been able to hold on his own against seasoned professionals.
Coleman said: “He’s a good goalscorer and he’s impressed me with what I’ve seen so far.
“Yeah, he looks OK, that boy.
“At that age, they can look good with their age group, but then, when they come up against the men, as it were, they’re not as comfortable with that environment.
“But, from what I’ve seen of him, he’s not put off by that at all.”