With 13 goals and 6 assists this season, Sunderland’s Josh Hawkes has been in excellent PL2 form for Sunderland’s U23 side. Lee Johnson was quick to sing the former Hartlepool player’s praises back in April noting in The Chronicle that:
If we can fast-track that physical maturation with him, with the right food, the right sports science programme, then in the summer he will come in with a clean slate along with everyone else knowing that he has a man’s frame now.
I think that prospect is quite exciting with somebody like Josh because we know he has got that ability to turn a game on its head.
While Hawkes has been linked with a role in the senior side, his performances this season in a rejuvenated U23 team must be a real positive for Sunderland’s backroom staff who will now be pondering how best to fast track the young forward’s development.
Whether Hawkes is involved with the first team or given a loan move to find senior minutes elsewhere, it certainly feels like he is ready to be challenged beyond youth football. Sunderland’s handling of Hawkes’ development will be a yardstick by which to measure the club’s approach to nurturing promising potential.
The club’s inability to adequately establish and enhance young talent has been a frustration of a large number of Sunderland fans in recent times.
Bali Mumba is perhaps the most recent and high-profile example of promising talent that the club has struggled to cultivate. After a handful of appearances for the first team, Mumba was subsequently moved back into the U23s where his progress seemingly stagnated amidst a smattering of cup appearances. A loan move to South Shields was too little too late, and a move to Norwich materialised last summer.
Benji Kimpioka has also lacked a clear plan to aid his development, though a recent loan move to Torquay has given him a chance to find senior minutes after his impressive form in the U23s was cut short by injury.
As such, the next steps for Josh Hawkes will likely shed some light on what Stuart Harvey, the club’s new head of player recruitment, described as a “blank canvas to implement an innovative model that promotes sustainable, long-term and evidence-based recruitment across the Academy and First Team.”
When hired by the club back in December, Kristjaan Speakman was keen to note that:
... One of the things that’s important about this project is that they [the club’s new ownership] want to create a best-in-class Academy - they want Sunderland’s Academy to be the centrepiece of their strategy.
They also want this to be a powerhouse in the North East of high performance and an institute of excellence across medical, analysis and sports science.
New additions to the club’s Academy also hint at a more organized and strategic approach to recruitment – something Kristjaan Speakman was eager to point out last month when he argued that, “effective player recruitment is pivotal to our strategy and its vital that we create and develop an approach that takes every age group into consideration.”
Ethan Kachosa, who recently signed a pro deal with the club, and Shane Temple of AFC Sudbury, have impressed in the last week. Kachosa has been involved in four goals in two games (3 goals and 1 assist) while Temple has netted twice during his trial with the club so far. Furthermore, talented Northampton duo Tom Scott and Ethan Johnston have also been given trials at the club recently. All four mentioned players are 18 years-old, while 20 year-old Tyrece Dyce of West Brom has also been given a chance to impress on trial.
With talks of Sunderland’s backroom team creating a new, data-driven “player recruitment strategy”, the club’s proactive approach to bolstering its youth contingent is a clear sign that Speakman and company are building the foundations of a player pathway at the club.
The formation of a dedicated SAFC Academy Twitter account established in February of this year adding credence to a newfangled sense of importance in Sunderland’s youth who were previously harvested prematurely.
Fans will look on with great interest at the manner in which Sunderland seek to find the right path for 22-year-old Hawkes, though.
The club’s approach to aiding the growth of this season’s standout youngster will do much to add some depth to Sunderland’s “blank canvas”.