For Sunderland’s academy, it has been a torrid few years. Stewart Donald often neglected that part of the football club and as a result, it was looking rather worse for wear at the start of the season.
The Mackems’ U23 side failed to win a single match last term, finishing rock bottom of Premier League 2.
It was unsurprising though. After all, the Black Cats have witnessed a number of their top young players walk through the exit door.
They viewed their chances of making the first-team slim as the academy continued to be forgotten about.
Sam Greenwood was one of the first to leave before the likes of Josh Maja, Logan Pye, Joe Hugill, Luke Hewitson, Bali Mumba and Morten Spencer all walked through the exit door.
However, the feeling is different now. Kyril Louis-Dreyfus has made the academy one of his priorities and together with Kristjaan Speakman, they’ve handed several talented young players trials at the club.
This comes after the arrival of Morgan Feeney, Vinnie Steel and Sam Wilding last summer. It also follows on from Josh Hawkes signing from Gateshead a few months ago.
Another player who arrived in 2020 was Will Harris, a player who hasn’t really made his mark until recent weeks.
He left Burnley to come and sign for the north-east outfit, a decision that looked easy for the 20-year-old; “Being a local lad, it’s a dream come true to sign a contract with Sunderland. I’m delighted to be here, and I can’t wait to get started,” Harris revealed after signing.
Indeed, U23 boss Elliott Dickman was keen to get him on board after a successful trial period; “We’re really pleased to get this deal done,” Dickman began. “We had Will on trial before lockdown and we liked what we saw. He has attributes that should really benefit us this season and we’re looking forward to working with him.”
The attributes Dickman speaks of are presumably his ability to find the net. Harris hasn’t always started this term but he did so against Crystal Palace U23s on Monday.
He managed to repay the manager too, scoring two goals which won Sunderland the game late on. The academy side were 1-0 down approaching the final minutes of the match. However, Harris found a little pocket of space on the edge of the area before firing a low strike beyond the ‘keeper to equalise in the 89th minute.
The young striker clearly had his tail up as he then scored again in the fourth minute of added time to make it 2-1. Harris found some space just inside the area this time before turning and finding the net.
It was a performance and show of attitude that will have left not only Dickman delighted but also Lee Johnson.
He hasn’t been afraid to hand young players an opportunity this season with Ollie Younger, Dan Neil and Jack Diamond all earning opportunities.
Though, it should be Diamond who is now looking over his shoulder. He burst onto the scene in eye-catching fashion towards the back end of 2020 but hasn’t received many starts of late.
He did play against Accrington but was hauled off at half time after completing just three passes. Clearly, the forward has some maturing to do before he’s fully unleashed.
Harris, however, may just be able to put some pressure on him.