Sunderland’s Under 23 side in 2016-2017 could rightly claim to be amongst the best in Europe. As David Moyes’ senior squad toiled at the wrong end of the Premier League, Elliot Dickman’s youngsters were beating some of the biggest names in Europe such as Benfica, PSV Eindhoven, Athletic Club - and Norwich City - on their way to the final of the Premier League International Cup.
Our side included some very familiar names who have graduated to the first team over the last few years, including current regulars Elliot Embleton and Lynden Gooch alongside former captain George Honeyman, fullbacks Denver Hume and Donald Love, and midfielder Ethan Robson.
Our striker that evening was Joel Asoro, who we sold to Swansea City the following summer and now, still only 22 years old, is playing back in his homeland with Stockholm side Djurgardens. On the bench, Josh Maja.
The Canaries had some experience in their line-up, including Congolese international Youssouf Mulumbu, and a future Premier League star in Ben Godfrey, who now plies his trade on Merseyside with Everton.
Also lining up in yellow and green was Connor McGrandles, who Sunderland fans will recognise from his performances against the lads for Lincoln City over the last couple of years.
It was Asoro who scored the crucial goal on 13 minutes. He had already seen a strong penalty claim turned down when it looked like Godfrey had brought him down in the box, but he got beyond the defence and slotted home to give Sunderland a vital early lead.
On 34 minutes, Norwich were handed the opportunity to equalise when a soft penalty was given for a shirt-pull, but Glenn Middleton (now on the books of Rangers and currently on loan at St Johnstone) couldn’t bet Max Stryjek in the Sunderland goal.
Lynden Gooch hit the bar in the second half, and Stryjek was forced into making a couple of decent stops towards the end, but the young Lads saw out an away win that brought a little cheer and light relief at a time when the club was finally succumbing to the gravitational pull of the EFL. Unfortunately that would be about as good as it got for our club that season.
The final, staged at the Stadium of Light on 17th May, saw the B side of Portuguese giants Porto hammer our youngsters 5-0 in front of over 20,000 supporters. They retained the title the following season with a victory over Arsenal at the Emirates too.
Unfortunately this innovative competition, designed to expose young players to the different styles and cultures of football across our continent, has been cancelled for the last few years due to Covid-19, but our fleeting success remains a high point in many of those lads’ careers to date.