Inside the heartbreaking yet heartening night that underlined the promising steps taken in Sunderland's big academy rebuild

Heartbreaking was perhaps an understatement.

Wednesday, 26th May 2021, 7:08 am

The hurt in the Sunderland squad was clear to see as David Olimabu fired home the decisive penalty for Crystal Palace, sealing promotion for the Eagles.

It will no doubt sting for a few days too, especially given that the Black Cats had chances to win the game over the course of 120 minutes.

But this was always about much more than one single game of football.

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Sunderland U23s in action at Crystal Palace. Picture: Ian Horrocks
Sunderland U23s in action at Crystal Palace. Picture: Ian Horrocks

This was about taking a step back and realising the sheer amount of positive change that has been engineered in Sunderland’s academy over the last twelve months.

For while this was undoubtedly a heartbreaking night in one regard, so too was it heartening in another.

The Black Cats have gone from finishing a season with a single point, to a play-off final. From seeing their best talents depart, to becoming the North East’s highest-ranked under-23 side.

Are all the problems solved? Far from it. But there are certainly plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future of the club’s famed academy.

And a host of those reasons were on show at Selhurst Park, where Sunderland’s under-23 side put in a superb away performance.

Having impressed in their semi-final win at Stoke City the previous week, the Wearsiders began in a similar vein in the torrential rain in south London.

Cieran Dunne came close early on with a wicked cross that almost caught-out Palace stopper Oliver Webber, but it wasn’t until the midway stage of the first half that the game sprung into life.

Josh Hawkes and Jake Hackett both fired over from range before Webber somehow managed to claw a header from the impressive Dan Neil out of the top corner.

The Palace ‘keeper was superb throughout and would deny Hawkes again before the interval, but the second half was all about the man in-between the other posts.

Sunderland had received their warnings in the dying stages of the first half, with Jesurun Rak-Sakyi blazing over from close range before Patrick Almond made a superb block to deny Rob Street.

And they would be indebted to Anthony Patterson when Palace turned the screw at the start of the second half, as he made a sublime double save to keep out Reece Hannam.

Sunderland’s rearguard defended with real endeavour as the game wore on with Oliver Younger and Patrick Almond forming a formidable partnership.

Both sides will feel they could – and perhaps should – have won the game in 90 minutes, and both had further chances in extra time too.

Patterson had to be at his best to deny Street after he peeled away and connected with a firm header, while Webber had to be equally as agile to tip away a curling strike from Hawkes.

Then in the final throes of extra time, Neil came close for Sunderland before appeals for handball were waved away, with Palace then breaking in a move that resulted in Street firing wide at the other end.

And so it was penalties that would decide promotion. The best way to win, the worst way to lose.

Sunderland’s players showed a remarkable confidence as they dispatched their first three penalties in superb fashion, with Ellis Taylor the unfortunate man to miss his spot kick as Palace were perfect from 12 yards.

But Taylor deserves great credit for stepping up to the mark under such pressure, particularly given he is an under-18 player playing at a level higher.

So too is Almond, and the duo both look to have bright futures in the game – as do a host of the squad.

Indeed, it’s perhaps indicative of the turnaround in the fortunes of the under-23 side that the question on the lips of supporters is no longer whether there is any talent in the second string capable of making the step-up to the first team.

Instead, it is of which of the exciting youngsters will be first to force their way in.

Patterson, Younger, Neil and Hawkes will all be knocking on the door next season and will no doubt have impressed Lee Johnson and Jamie McAllister, who watched on from the stands at Selhurst Park.

The very nature of under-23 football means that changes in the Sunderland squad will be inevitable this summer – with some players departing, and others promoted to the first-team - so this was some last dance for those who will be departing the Academy of Light in the coming weeks.

Indeed, coach Michael Proctor noted post match that this performance would be one they could show potential incomings when they describe what an ideal Sunderland performance would look like.

There were bags of pride, passion and a performance fitting of the badge.

Those are the pillars on which the under-23 side have built their strong season - and so too will they be the key traits required as Sunderland continue their academy rebuild.

That is an ongoing process, but one which has seen some big strides taken this season.

New appointments have seen the structure improve, a strong pathway is beginning to be developed, and results have improved across the board – although that is arguably a happy by-product, with player development always being key.

This is a promising start, and Sunderland’s academy is on the road back to where it should be.

It will be a long journey, but there are now some real grounds for optimism.

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