When the South stand of the Stadium of Light sang Josh Maja’s name on Saturday following the youngster’s well-taken goals against Rochdale, those in attendance will have noted the smug jab from Sunderland supporters in the lyrics of the song aimed at the recently-departed Joel Asoro.
Asoro, who left Sunderland in the summer to join up with Swansea City, was a teammate of Maja’s for a number of years as the pair graduated the Academy of light together, before eventually progressing through to becoming regular first-team squad members last season under Chris Coleman.
Woah-oh-oh it’s Maja, you know... he’s better than Joel Asoro!
It’d be fair to say that it’s not lost on Sunderland’s fan-base that whilst Josh Maja opted to stick around and take his chance of playing for the club in League One this season, Asoro was keen to get as far away from Wearside as possible.
And, after ending up in deepest, darkest Swansea, the Swedish forward hasn’t enjoyed as as much success as he would have perhaps expected, now finding himself as a regular amongst the substitutes at the Liberty Stadium despite beginning the season as one of Graham Potter’s starters.
Asoro has been restricted to appearances off the bench as of late after a lukewarm start to the season where he failed to register any goals, and has just one assist.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Asoro has failed at Swansea because that would be premature and ridiculous - he’s only 19-year old and, as such, his talent must be nurtured. He’s going to have to expect - initially at least - that he’ll be in and out of their team as the strive to protect him whilst also rotating their options, particularly if he’s not actually adding anything to their side in terms of goals and assists.
That said, would he have been better off playing regularly in a winning side?
Josh Maja’s early achievements is surely an example to all young players that if you work hard and apply yourself properly at Sunderland, you can make a success of your career on a big stage. The fact we are playing third-tier football really is quite irrelevant - he’s playing every week in a competitive league, and is scoring with relative ease.
He’s got seven goals so far this season and all of them have been good finishes.
Maja is simply taking what he’s been able to do for the youth teams and on the training pitch for many years, but is instead applying his skills in games for the first team. His technique and finishing ability are second to none in this side, and with a team built around him to help get the best from him, he’s undoubtedly thrived.
Asoro and Maja came through at Sunderland at the same time and were frequently partnered together both in our U23s and U18s, so the fact that they aren’t enjoying some semblance of success together is slightly disappointing.
It almost feels like a wasted opportunity for Asoro - who clearly has always harboured ambitions to play at the highest possible level - who was one of the more impressive first-team players last season as we tumbled out of the Championship without much of a fight.
Josh Maja won the EFL Young Player of the Month award for August, and deservedly so. I talked with a friend who works at the Academy of Light earlier this year - when both players were still at Sunderland - and he spoke of the attitude of the two young men and the way that they are perceived around the club.
He told me that whilst Asoro wasn’t particularly well liked by staff because of his attitude, Josh Maja was an incredibly respectful young man that everyone at the academy had a lot time for.
That said, where I was slightly apprehensive about whether or not Maja would go on to ‘make it’ at Sunderland, he had absolutely no fear that he would. Thankfully, he was right.
I’m not suggesting that Asoro would have been able to match Maja’s success so far this season, because quite frankly nobody expected that he’d have such a huge impact, but you do have to wonder what situation would have been better for his career.
Is it better to be seen as an impact player off the bench in a mediocre Championship team, or to be a regular starter in a Sunderland side that are challenging for promotion?
Hindsight is wonderful, of course, but I can’t help wondering whether Asoro looks at his friend Maja doing so well with a tinge of regret, knowing fine well that it could have been him in that position, earning plaudits and scoring goals on a regular basis in a team that play good football.