Francis Okoronkwo: The mystery player celebrating Sunderland Wembley win revealed

Sunderland’s Wembley win was built on the success of the Academy of Light – and there’s a new star coming through!

Monday, 15th March 2021, 1:37 pm

When the teamsheet was revealed for the Papa John’s Trophy final against Tranmere Rovers on Sunday, the number of academy graduates in the Sunderland ranks was a cause for much celebration.

Grant Leadbitter and eventual matchwinner Lynden Gooch made the starting XI, while the bench was filled with rising stars Jack Diamond, Dan Neil, Oliver Younger and Benji Kimpioka.

Those six players had been joined in the travelling party by two other Under-23 players, goalkeeper Anthony Patterson and midfielder Josh Hawkes, while left-back Denver Hume would have been a guaranteed starter had he recovered from injury.

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The pictures of the academy graduates celebrating with the trophy on the famous Wembley turf after the game was a huge tick for the club, but it was another young player who caused a stir on social media when a picture appeared of him on Twitter celebrating with the ineligible players who had travelled to the game.

The Echo can reveal the mystery player in question was Francis Okoronkwo, a highly-rated midfielder from the club’s U16s team who had been invited along by Kristjaan Speakman & Co as part of his footballing education.

Sunderland hope Okoronkwo is one of the next talents off the production line at the AoL. The young midfielder has impressed the coaching staff with his ability and attitude, and has already featured heavily for the U18s this season.

He was invited to travel to Wembley with the players unavailable for the game, including Aiden O’Brien, Dion Sanderson, Bailey Wright, Arbenit Xhemajli, Carl Winchester and Hume.

Sunderland's academy graduates celebrate at Wembley. Inset Francis Okoronkwo.

Okoronkwo has been handed a scholarship deal with Sunderland which will come into force in the summer. The youngster, who was invited to AC Milan training camp five years ago, has been earmarked as a potential star by academy chiefs who are keen to develop young players and show them a pathway through to the first team.

Sunderland have lost a number of graduates in recent years, including Joe Hugill and Logan Pye to Manchester United last summer, Bali Mumba to Norwich City, Sam Greenwood (Arsenal, now Leeds) and Luca Stephenson (Liverpool).

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Lynden Gooch and Grant Leadbitter hold the Papa John’s trophy. Picture by FRANK REID

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