For years and years, the common cry heard when the club have struggled has been to ‘give the kids a chance’, and it’s understandable, really - when we fall on hard times we strive to find ways to feel better about goings on, to improve our situation, and one of the first things that comes to mind is that the youngsters at the club couldn’t do any worse than their older, seasoned first-team counterparts.
Now, for some, the dream has become the reality - with Sunderland a third tier club, a necessity to rely upon youth in order to beef out our squad has arisen, and its fair to say that a number of young players have grasped that opportunity with both hands.
Josh Maja is of course the most notable case - he’s the top scorer in League One during a season where the plan initially was never for him to feature as much as he has done.
Injuries to other strikers and the club’s inability to sign Billy Sharp in the summer has meant that his opportunities for game time have came thick and fast and, like any young player with their head screwed on, Josh has worked hard and ensured that each and every time he steps out on that pitch he takes his chances.
He’s a beacon of hope to others in his position; an example that there are going to be opportunities to impress this manager and these fans this season, and you better be ready to take them.
Others in his crop have done the same - Denver Hume and Lynden Gooch have gone from being outside of the previous manager’s plans to becoming integral to those of the current one, and now we really cannot imagine a Sunderland without them at the centre of it all.
But, with the prospect of potentially playing over sixty games in total this season ahead of us, there will always be chances for the young group just below Maja and co. to showcase their own abilities.
Cup games are frequent, and with it expected that we’re likely to do well in this year’s Checkatrade Trophy it means that, once a month, there will be a chance for members of our U23s squad to get involved with the first team and potentially even get some minutes out on the pitch.
During last week’s game with Carlisle United we saw debuts for Jack Diamond - one of the most promising players currently in the academy, forward Lee Connelly and Swedish prospect Benji Kimpioka, who started and opened the scoring for Jack Ross’ side. On the bench were goalkeeper Anthony Patterson, midfielder Jake Hackett, right back Owen Gamble and central defender Brandon Taylor.
For them, the experience of being around the senior players on a matchday is an invaluable one that I hope they all made the most of.
Kimpioka is the most notable of those that have burst onto the scene in recent weeks, though you could say it all started in pre-season when he bagged the equaliser for the first team away at Hartlepool United.
His striking blonde hair aside, there’s something that stands out with this boy and his enthusiasm on the pitch is infectious. If he keeps working hard, he’ll be the next one behind Maja to really leave an impression on Sunderland’s senior side.
The frequency of which the first-teamers have picked up injuries and suspensions since the season began suggests that there will be plenty of other opportunities for these lads in the future too - and it’s now up to them to take their chances as they come along.
We all know that results have not been good enough for Sunderland’s U23s side this season, but if these boys want to be noticed then they’ll have to start using each and every game they play in a Sunderland shirt as an opportunity to impress and show why they’re worthy of first team recognition.
Think of the way Luke Molyneux was able to stand out last season, for example - despite their relegation, Molyneux was consistently good for Elliott Dickman’s side and, come the end of the season, he was deemed worthy of a start in Chris Coleman’s final game in charge, a 3-0 league win over eventual champions Wolverhampton Wanderers.
So, to any of Sunderland’s young players reading this, I urge you to make the most of this season. This club won’t be in the third tier for very long, and no other crop of academy players have been handed such an unbelievable chance to get themselves noticed - make the most of it and step up.
If you do, you stand a very good chance of making it, just like Maja, Robson, Gooch and Honeyman before you.