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South Shields v Sunderland Pe-Season Friendly

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Roker Roundtable: Which of Sunderland’s academy players could break through in 2023/2024?

The friendlies against South Shields and Gateshead saw us field a number of young prospects. Could any of them be set for some first team action during the coming season?

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Gav says...

The one player I have high hopes for is Zak Johnson.

I know that it’s a big ask for an eighteen-year-old to be able to become an effective member of the first team squad, but everything I’ve heard and seen from this lad suggests he’s going to be a player.

We’ve recruited a lot of defenders over the last three transfer windows, but we have to place as much faith and importance in our own academy players as we do in players we bring in from elsewhere.

Johnson captained England’s U18 team over the summer so he’s clearly highly thought of, and physically he looks up to scratch.

I was genuinely amazed when I saw him run out with the rest of the team at Gateshead, because he was bigger than almost every other Sunderland player on the pitch.

Physicality is obviously a massive part of being an effective player in the Championship, and if he can combine that with his footballing ability, there’s really no reason why he can’t grab his chance with both hands when it comes.

There’s been a lot of talk about Danny Batth leaving, and the injury problems we’ve seen throughout our defence over the last year shouldn’t be forgotten when trying to plan for the coming season.

If we genuinely believe in Johnson and his ability to become a first team player, we shouldn’t hesitate to give him a chance when we get the opportunity.

Gateshead v Sunderland Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Malc Dugdale says...

I’m hopeful we can see more of young Michael Spellman this season.

We clearly need more attacking threat with the exit of Amad and the delayed return for Ross Stewart. Spellman managed an assist and a goal across the two fixtures, and was apparently unlucky not to get more.

While these games are clearly against sides lower down the pyramid, it’s great to see Spellman, and others posing questions to Tony Mowbray and the coaching team.

With his ability to use the width of the pitch and his direct attacking skills, he may well be a useful substitute or an option for cup games initially.

Well done to the lad for the double header performance and let’s hope he continues to give the gaffer something to think about while we play in America!

Gateshead v Sunderland Pe-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Matthew Crichton says...

I think the more obvious answer than the above-mentioned players is 16-year-old Chris Rigg!

The lad who very nearly became the youngest ever goalscorer in the FA Cup, Rigg signed his new contract at Sunderland for one factor and one factor only - opportunities.

Sunderland proved last season in the cup competitions that they were not afraid to play the young midfielder, even against top-half Premier League opposition, and that faith was paid back when Rigg committed his short-term future to the club.

After scoring the winner against South Shields on Saturday, Rigg is set to continue training with the first team and you would imagine will travel with the team to America to take part in our three friendlies.

While I think it is far too early for Rigg to start regular league matches, I would expect him to be a regular face on the bench now that the nine-substitute rule has been introduced and I think he will make his league debut before the end of 2023.

With Sunderland playing in the League Cup just two days after our opening fixture against Ipswich, I think it is likely that Tony Mowbray will make 11 enforced changes and I would not be surprised to see Rigg make his full Sunderland debut against Crewe.

Through a combination of limited revenue and unwelcomed fixture congestion, Sunderland may as well use that competition to hand minutes our best young prospects like Rigg and the likes of Zak Johnson and Tom Watson.


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