Kristjaan Speakman delivers verdict on youngster's superb Sunderland U23 form and what happens next
Josh Hawkes has been urged to take his chance to impress Lee Johnson in Sunderland's pre-season programme.
The forward has made a major impression since joining the club's U23 setup after his departure from Hartlepool United last summer.
He has 13 goals (the most in the division alongside Aston Villa's Louie Barry) in a side that has secured a place in the promotion play-offs, despite not winning a single league game in the 2019/20 campaign.
Hawkes made his senior debut in the Papa John's League Trophy defeat at Fleetwood Town earlier this season, and has occasionally featured in the matchday squad since Johnson's arrival.
Speaking on the club's #SAFCUnfiltered podcast, Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman said Hawkes would be part of the first-team squad as pre-season begins, with Johnson's final squad likely to take some time to fully take shape.
"Josh's performances with goals and assists has been really, really good," Speakman said.
"He's right up there in both charts. A player at his age now, he needs to be able to come into the first-team environment. He's trained an awful lot with the first-team.
"He's not quite managed to squeeze himself onto the starting XI, which speaks probably more about the quality in the team than to say Josh has fallen short. Myself and Lee are watching almost all the games, Josh has performed really really well and he'll be in the first-team squad for pre-season.
"Every player is different and what we've tried to do is structure it so that he's been across training with the first-team quite a lot and he understands what the requirement is.
"Naturally there's going to be a reshuffle of the squad in the summer and pre-season provides those players with a great opportunity to get involved in the games and perform.
"That's the next step he needs to take."
Hawkes' regular presence in senior training means Johnson has kept a close eye on his development.
Speaking last month, the head coach outlined how the 22-year-old's progression over the summer would be crucial to his senior prospects moving into the next campaign.
"I’ve had a great chat with him about his summer, because he hasn’t quite got that physical maturation yet at senior level to be able to from the start,” Johnson said.
"I’m not saying he wouldn’t be able to from the bench – to go and dominate an opponent technically, which he can, tactically, which naturally he’s got a little bit to do, but physically I think is the key for him.
"If we can and he can fast-track that physical maturation by the right food, the right sports science programme and a summer – I think pre-season he comes in with a clean slate on everybody else knowing that he’s got that man’s frame now.
"I think that’s something that is quite exciting about somebody like Josh.
"We know he has got that ability to be able to turn a game on its head.”
Sunderland will face Stoke City in their play-off semi final at the Bet365 Stadium on Monday, kicking off at 7pm.