Chris Coleman has issued a challenge to Sunderland’s youngsters to earn a place in the first team by proving they can hack Championship football; and with the cream of the Black Cats crop mid-way through their first pro contracts, the reward should be new deals at the Stadium of Light.
First team fringe youngsters like Joel Asoro, Elliot Embleton and Josh Maja all signed three-year professional contracts in the summer of 2016 and with just 18 months to run, Sunderland will be keen to tie them down on extensions - assuming they can convince the new boss and his backroom team that they’re good enough.
Others like Andrew Nelson, Luke Molyneux and Denver Hume are on shorter deals and will be the next wave aiming to make the step up into the senior side.
Speaking to the Sunderland Echo, the Black Cats boss suggested he won’t be afraid to chuck a few kids into the fray in the coming weeks:
If they’re good enough and I think they can handle where we are, I don’t care how old they are. As long as it won’t be detrimental to their progression and future, I don’t care how old they are. If they’re good enough, they’re in, simple as that.
Asoro has forced his way into Coleman’s thinking with two appearances off the bench in the new manager’s first pair of games and capped it with a neat assist for George Honeyman’s goal at Burton last weekend.
The 18-year-old is now a regular in the Swedish Under-21 set-up though there have been reports suggesting he may switch to Nigeria - the country of his parent’s birth - once he makes the step up to senior international football.
And while Asoro has at times flattered to deceive for the Under-23s, his undoubted ability and potential to offer the first team an injection of pace - in an otherwise pedestrian squad - will have Coleman keen to see how far the youngster can progress.
Asoro is probably at the top of the club’s list to tie down to a longer deal. There were suggestions in the summer that Arsenal, amongst others, have been monitoring his progress.
Should the lad who moved from Sweden to Sunderland in 2015 begin to play regularly into the new year, there’s every chance he could be picked up by a ‘big club’ next summer and the Black Cats will be keen to hang onto him or maximise his value by extending his contract. Word is, talks are in the early stages to do just that.
Likewise Josh Maja looks ready to offer something to the first team given his appearances under Simon Grayson in pre-season. The 18-year-old was unfortunate to be hit by injury as the campaign began but made his come back recently in Premier League 2.
England Under-21 international Elliot Embleton has been involved in a few matchday squads for the seniors whilst others who may be able to force their way into the reckoning should more injuries hit Coleman’s squad include defender Tom Beadling and Ethan Robson whose deals expire next summer.