What comes next for Josh Hawkes after his sublime Sunderland under-23 season and calls for first-team involvement
You only need to look at the list of names alongside Josh Hawkes in the goalscoring charts to understand the scale of his achievement.
He is tied with Louie Barry of Aston Villa -who famously headed to Barcelona two years ago – on 13 league goals during the 2020/21 season and has out-scored a host of hot prospects from Premier League clubs.
Sam Greenwood and Joe Geldhart are among those who have been left trailing in the wake of Hawkes during what has been an impressive first season on Wearside for the former Hartlepool United man.
It’s not bad company to keep, and speaks volumes about the impact the 22-year-old has had since his arrival at the Academy of Light.
Hawkes was one a host of new faces to join the club’s under-23 ranks in the summer after the side gained just a single point during the curtailed 2019/20 campaign.
And while a collective effort has succeeded in turning the ship around and securing a place in the promotion play-offs for Sunderland’s second string, there is no hiding from the fact that Hawkes’ goals have been a big part of their success.
Such form has naturally led to speculation about what comes next for the youngster, who has been the subject of growing calls for involvement in the first-team fold.
Hawkes has travelled with the first-team squad on occasion this term and has also featured in the Papa John’s Trophy – travelling to Wembley with the Black Cats for their victory over Tranmere Rovers.
And with a year remaining on his contract, all eyes will be on the 2021/22 season and whether Hakes can make his mark on the first-team.
Indeed, Lee Johnson has already held talks with the player about the summer ahead.
"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,” said the head coach.
"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.”
Johnson has already shown that he is willing to hand youth a chance, with both Oliver Younger and Jack Diamond beneficiaries in recent months.
And if Hawkes can enjoy a successful pre-season, then he will hope to be the next in line for an opportunity.
A promotion to the Championship may put additional obstacles in Hawkes’ way given the anticipated recruitment that would follow – but if he can replicate his goalscoring form next term, then he will no doubt play himself into Johnson’s thoughts.