KEVIN Ball believes Sunderland’s first-team contenders will benefit from any opportunities in the Under-21 League this season.
Sunderland used their full allocation of over-age players in last night’s 2-2 derby draw at Newcastle after Louis Saha, Matt Kilgallon and David Vaughan all completed 90 minutes.
Rookie frontmen Connor Wickham, 19, and Ji Dong-won, 20, also featured, although the duo will be eligible for the second string all season due to their age.
But development coach Ball says the encounter will have been particularly beneficial for Saha, Kilgallon and Vaughan, in front of the watching Martin O’Neill.
Saha didn’t enjoy the benefits of a pre-season, Kilgallon is yet to feature for Sunderland this year, while Vaughan is only just making his way back from a hernia operation.
Ball told the Echo: “The nice thing about the under-21s league is the manager has the option of dropping down three overage players.
“And Connor and Ji are still under 21 too, so they come into the younger bracket.
“The ones who dropped down needed game time. You can train as much as you want, but you need to get on to the pitch to get your bearings. I thought they acquitted themselves really well.
“It’s a fantastic experience for the other lads to play with them too.
“To go to a stadium like that and play alongside someone like Louis Saha is great.
“What we then emphasise is how they need to keep working hard to achieve that regularly.”
In contrast to Sunderland, Newcastle fielded just one over-age player – former Everton midfielder Dan Gosling – but the Black Cats couldn’t make their experience advantage count.
After Connor Wickham handed Sunderland the initial advantage, the Magpies fought back to take a half-time lead, only for the Black Cats to level within four minutes of the restart after Wickham notched his second.
Sunderland dominated the remainder of proceedings, but Wickham, Saha and Ji were all guilty of glaring misses in front of goal.
“If you compare the fact of age, we were probably a bit more experienced, so you have to give credit to Newcastle for staying in the game,” Ball added.
“We started the game well, scored and then we went a bit sloppy.
“Instead of taking the game to them, we allowed them to take it to us.
“In the first half, even though I thought we had enough chances to go ahead, they had a couple too and I didn’t think it was really us.
“I felt, second half, they really upped the tempo and really had a go.
“The amount of chances we created, we should have been way out of sight.”