Sunderland’s under-21s contest their final home game of the regular season in Premier League 2 tonight at Eppleton Colliery with the prospect of being able to play international football within their grasp.

The outlook at the Academy of Light has changed in recent years. No longer is this a development programme which is neglected, where highly-regarded young talent is sold on for less than their market value in order to fund other areas of the club, even at first team level. This is now a development programme which receives the care and attention it deserves.

Four years ago, Sunderland’s academy team failed to win a single game in the season taking regular heavy defeats to the likes of West Bromwich Albion, Fulham, Aston Villa and most who they came up against as the club’s first team meandered in League One. Four years on, however, following the arrivals of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman and a revamp of the club’s academy structure, Sunderland’s under-21s are two games away from potentially securing an invitation into next season’s international cup. Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers are who stand in the way of Graeme Murty guiding his young team to that elusive 12th place or above in the newly restructured league but the former Rangers head coach has played down the prospect of being able to compete in Europe as an added motivation for his team.


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Sunderland have lost just six of their 18 games in Premier League 2 this season, four of which have come in their last eight games including the recent 2-1 defeat to neighbours Middlesbrough at the Stadium of Light after what had been a hugely encouraging start to the 2023-24 campaign. But although their destiny remains very much in their own hands as they currently sit 10th in the division with one of their main rivals Blackburn still to play at the end of the month, Murty insists it is about the development and progression of his players rather than the tangible reward at the end of it.

“They’ll finish where they deserve to finish,” Murty told We Are Sunderland. “I expect them to perform. I expect them to play well. But for young players, it’s really good to have a consequence; ‘ah well, you’ve missed out on playing Werder Bremen or PSV because we didn’t execute’ or you did get it because you did execute. They need to have that reward, and sometimes they need to have that little bit of disappointment as well.

“When we play well, we’re a really good team. Our job is to be effective when we’re not playing as well and I don’t think, as a team and as a group, we’ve got that nailed down quite as much as I would like yet.

“It’s a nice incentive [to finish in the top 12], it’s great for them because it’s a big occasion. There are some really, really good teams involved in it and it’s a great competition. We want to be in it but I’m conscious that my role is to develop young people.

“I want to do it in a real genuine way that they can see that it’s about their growth and not a pat on the back from someone online or someone in our hierarchy because we got ‘x’ achievement. I want to see these young people go and develop and grow and have really good careers. If that’s a by-product, then I think we’ll be doing our job really well.”

We Are Sunderland: Sunderland's under-21s were beaten 2-1 by Middlesbrough at the Stadium of LightSunderland's under-21s were beaten 2-1 by Middlesbrough at the Stadium of Light (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Murty’s steadfast nature remains the same whether Sunderland’s under-21s are successful or they come up short, likewise is his management of expectations when it comes to some of his players, as seen recently with 17-year-old winger Tommy Watson who continues to be a name on supporters’ lips with regards to earning minutes in the first team.

Murty, as a player, racked up nearly 400 senior appearances for the likes of Reading, Southampton and York City before quickly moving into coaching at an academy level with Southampton and Norwich City following his retirement. Murty would go on to land a role at Ibrox with Rangers in a developmental capacity where he would eventually become first team manager. Murty’s link between academy and first team level in previous roles stands him in good stead at the Academy of Light, particularly with the 49-year-old also part of the first team match day staff, something which helps create that link for his academy players.

“They’re all getting exposure to the first team. We spend a lot of time training on the first team plateau; all the staff know all the players’ names, I think it helps that our staff have got a developmental background so they know the players and when we do take the 21s over there, they’re always really complementary about their attitude and about their intensity in the way they go and approach their work,” said Murty.

“For us, the nirvana is when a player goes over there and he doesn’t bounce back. He goes over there and he sticks. We want that selfishly. We want that for them. But the players need to know that if they do go and stick we’re not going to go easy on them. We’re still demanding more again and again and I think we’re right to do that.

“We’re right to have really high standards and just because we want to push young players forward we’re never going to lower the standards of performance and development that makes that next step possible.”

Murty’s methods have had a positive impact on Sunderland’s academy, not least by their encouraging season so far with regards to the Premier League 2 table. Recently, academy captain Ellis Taylor, who returned from injury in the 2-1 defeat to Middlesbrough, revealed exclusively to We Are Sunderland how Murty instils that positive nature in the dressing room.

“He’s good on and off the pitch,” said Taylor. “He knows what he’s doing and what he wants on the pitch, but he can still have that bit of craic and banter with the lads in the dressing room as well at the right times. He knows what he expects of us and what he, and we, can do.”

We Are Sunderland: Ellis Taylor returned to Sunderland's academy squad from the bench against MiddlesbroughEllis Taylor returned to Sunderland's academy squad from the bench against Middlesbrough (Image: Ian Horrocks)

And it’s something midfielder Harrison Jones has echoed after the 19-year-old was recently nominated for March’s Premier League 2 player of the month award with the teenager highlighting Murty’s insistence on taking responsibility for any mistakes that occur through operating with his, and the club’s, philosophy of playing out from the back as seen with Sonny Finch’s opening goal for Middlesbrough last week.

“Murts has always said you can never say you’ve made it until you’ve made at least 100 league appearances which is obviously miles and miles away for us but it helps keep us grounded and he gives great details as you can see with the improvement in our football,” said Jones.

“The only way you can get better is by making mistakes which is hard at times. It’s the only way you can develop. Murts always says that he takes all the blame, so it’s not on us. Mistakes happen but we’d rather make mistakes than play negatively in our shell.”




Murty added to We Are Sunderland: “I said to the players when I first came in that we’re going to play out from the back, we’re going to make loads of mistakes, we’re going to lose goals and that’s got nothing to do with you. That’s my fault.

“I want to do that, the club want to do that, we believe in that. Because we believe in that at this level, when they make mistakes it’s a really good teaching opportunity and that’s what we’ve talked about. I said to them that I take ownership of playing out from the back. I don’t want to hear staff saying we shouldn’t do this or we shouldn’t do that. I want players who in the 90th minute are comfortable taking the ball on the edge of their own box because that’s going to set them in really good stead for going further on and then we teach them when it’s appropriate.

“We want to expose them to hardship. We want to expose them to failure, as strange a term as that sounds, in the fact we know they’re going to fail because they’re young and inconsistent, but they have to feel empowered to try and they’ll never get castigated by myself or my staff for doing it.

“They haven’t let their heads drop all season with it. We’ve had really good opportunities – we played Man United and we were 5-0 down after 50 minutes and they came back to 5-5. That’s got nothing to do with me. That’s got to do with their attitude and their application and their heart.

“If I don’t teach them the skills first, they’re never going to have the capacity to choose and the capacity to choose is what we’re trying to teach.”

We Are Sunderland: Graeme Murty has downplayed the need for Sunderland to reach the international cup citing his role to develop players rather than rewardsGraeme Murty has downplayed the need for Sunderland to reach the international cup citing his role to develop players rather than rewards (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Murty’s approach has Sunderland on the brink of international competition in the 2024-25 campaign, something they will get a flavour of in pre-season after it was confirmed both the under-21s and under-18s will have a training camp in Italy while the first team squad go through their Championship preparations in Spain.

Although Murty somewhat played down the reward of playing in next season’s international cup, it’s a target Jones and the rest of the academy squad have targeted since the beginning of the season.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the new format,” he said. “We would have been in division two so it’s great for us to play against the bigger and better teams and demonstrate we can play against them and get good results. That’s how you learn, playing against better players.

“We want to win every game but I think top 12 is our goal. At the start of the season that’s what we put out to achieve and we’ve got two big games left to try and achieve that.”

Whether Sunderland make it into the international cup or not next season, they have come a long way since their winless campaign of 2019-20.