Sunderland coach hails under-23 squad as Josh Hawkes and Oliver Younger fire side to play-off final
Michael Proctor believes a place in the Premier League 2 promotion play-off final is just rewards for the work put in by Sunderland’s under-23 squad this season.
Goals from Josh Hawkes and Oliver Younger saw the Black Cats beat favourites Stoke City to set-up a final against Crystal Palace next week.
It caps-off a remarkable turnaround for the club’s second string who ended the curtailed 2019/20 campaign with just a point to their name.
And Proctor has been quick to hail the efforts of the players in engineering such a turnaround – and believes the season has already defied any prior expectations.
"It’s been a great season,” he said, speaking to The Echo.
"Obviously it’s been well-documented that last season wasn’t fantastic for us, but this season the lads have been excellent for us.
"I’m thrilled for them to get to a final and now they’ve got that to look forward to.
"I think there’s always been a belief in the squad at what we could achieve. Whether or not we thought we could achieve this at the start of the season, I’d probably say no.
"But we’ve always had a belief in the players and this is a cherry on the cake.
"It’s something the lads have thoroughly deserved for the work they’ve put in this season.”
Hawkes goal was another moment of quality from the former Hartlepool United man, who placed his shot into the bottom corner just before the hour mark.
And he turned provider moments later when his free-kick was flicked home by the head of Younger.
It was the kind of quality that was lacking in a lacklustre first-half – and something assistant manager Proctor had addressed at the interval.
"We spoke at half-time about that little bit of quality we were maybe missing in the first half, and Josh Hawkes has that.
"The first goal is a fantastic finish from him, and then it’s his delivery for the second goal – and it’s desire, really, from Oli to go and get his head on the ball. There was no-one else going to head that ball such was the way he attacked it.
"They came at important times and I can’t speak highly enough of the players.”
Sunderland had to defend resolutely at times in their victory, but kept their hosts – who included experienced former Black Cat James McClean in their starting line-up – at an arms’ length for the most part.
It was an archetypal away performance, and one that left Proctor enthused ahead of the showdown with Palace next week.
"I think it was a really good away performance, if I’m honest,” he said.
“There were always going to be spells in the game where the opposition will put you under a little bit of pressure, especially when you’re away from home, but I thought we were pretty comfortable.
“We defended really well and the lads showed their character, which they’ve done all season.”
Full details of the play-off final at Selhurst Park will be confirmed in the coming days.