Following a number of remarkable performances for Elliott Dickman’s Sunderland under-23 side this season, Lee Johnson must unleash Josh Hawkes in the Black Cats’ upcoming play-off semi-final clash against Lincoln.
After impressing during his time at Hartlepool United, scoring 13 goals and providing one assist over 63 appearances for the National League side, Hawkes made the move to the Stadium of Light on a free transfer in September 2020.
While the 22-year-old has found first team game-time hard to come by under Lee Johnson, making just one appearance for the Black Cats’ senior side during his time on Wearside thus far, the attacking midfielder has nevertheless displayed his capabilities for the club’s under-23s.
Over his 20 Premier League 2 fixtures for the Sunderland under-23s, Hawkes has scored a whopping 13 goals – the joint-most in the competition alongside Aston Villa’s Louie Barry – and has registered six assists, with the youngster’s goals often being game-changing, as well as firing the youth side to the play-offs.
Indeed, the performances of the 22-year-old have not gone unnoticed by Johnson or Kristjaan Speakman, the latter of whom has spoken openly regarding the potential of Hawkes making the step up to first team football in an interview with the SAFC Unfiltered podcast (via Sunderland Echo).
He said: “Josh’s performances with goals and assists has been really, really good. 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.
“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.”
Despite Speakman’s outlook for next season, considering just how impressive Hawkes has been for the development side, the argument could easily be made that the midfielder should at least be included on the bench for the club’s upcoming play-off semi-final clash with Lincoln City. The 22-year-old has proven that he is a game-changer, while his pace and fitness which comes with youth, coupled with an obvious eye for goal, could make all the difference for the Black Cats as they chase a return to the Championship.
Indeed, there would appear to be nothing to lose for Johnson in sticking the 22-year-old – whom the Sunderland manager himself dubbed an “exciting” player – on the bench for the showdown against the Imps, while the reward could well be monumental for the club.