As Graeme Murty traipsed across the vast Tottenham Hotspur Stadium pitch to carry out further media requirements, in front of a somewhat daunting, yet spectacular empty arena, he was confronted by Spurs boss Wayne Burnett.

The pair shared a short while together, away from the noise and heightened nature of the technical area which had encapsulated both over the course of the previous 90 minutes. Murty’s persona was upbeat, despite a noticeable undertone of disappointment, Burnett somewhat comforting in his demeanour. As they embraced and shared a joke and a smile, Murty completed his duties before returning to the dugout where he thanked members of staff and the remaining stragglers of his under-21s squad – their season now at an end.

“I wish their staff weren’t so nice,” Murty joked. “They keep patting me on the back and saying how good we are."

Those tokens of appraisal from the Tottenham staff continued from pitch side to press room with several making passing comment of their surprise at just how well this Sunderland team had performed in defeat. On another day, it could well have been Murty’s team picking up the Premier League 2 trophy, but for some misfortune from both Harrison Jones and Tom Watson when hitting the post and some rare lapses in defence in leaving academy football’s player of the year, Will Lankshear, with a little too much room inside their own penalty area – the former Sheffield United striker signed for a seven-figure sum two years ago needing little invitation to add to his impressive goal tally this season that could see him make the step up into senior football next year.

Those were the ‘regrets’ which lingered in the immediate aftermath for Murty, but they were outweighed by the resounding positives.

“They are really good people and I know they work extremely hard. I credit them and respect them what they’ve done,” he said of Tottenham’s success. “But I thought my lads deserved more.

“I think we created really good opportunities and have gone toe-to-toe with the best team in the country. I think the least we deserved was a draw. That can come over that I’m being begrudging to our opponents, and I’m not because they are an excellent team, but I thought what I saw from my players they deserve more than they got.”

We Are Sunderland: Graeme Murty received plenty of praise for Sunderland under-21s' display in their Premier League 2 play-off final defeat to Tottenham HotspurGraeme Murty received plenty of praise for Sunderland under-21s' display in their Premier League 2 play-off final defeat to Tottenham Hotspur (Image: Sunderland AFC)

It was forthright from Murty, who has been an advocate for his Sunderland team getting what they deserve from this season – a season which has produced more than anybody inside, and outside, the Academy of Light would have anticipated back in August. Having ended their 2022-23 Premier League 2 Division Two campaign with just two wins from their final 11 league matches, it may have been perceived as rather disconcerting how the club’s youngsters would fare with a step up in quality as the league restructured to combine both divisions. In contrast to their second half to last season, however, Sunderland’s academy side won six of their opening 11 games of the season, losing just three against second-placed West Ham United, Arsenal and eventual league winners Tottenham.

Within that run, Murty’s team also provided a first real glimpse into their psyche in what Murty would later in the season describe as a ‘pig-headed refusal to stay down’ when coming from 5-0 behind against Manchester United to draw 5-5 at Eppleton Colliery.


READ MORE: Graeme Murty shares 'glowing endorsement' for academy captain Ellis Taylor


That early part of the season saw the club’s academy supplemented by a number of first team fringe players such as Jewison Bennette, new signings needing to adjust like Luis Hemir and Nazariy Rusyn, or players coming back from injury such as Niall Huggins. But it has been the latter part of the campaign, where the emphasis was placed solely upon those players within the club’s academy ranks, which has drawn a clamour of interest and success as they punched their ticket, one comeback after another, to the play-off final in North London.

“This was never on the radar for anyone,” said Murty. “I think the journey they’ve been on, the growth that they’ve shown, I’m incredibly proud of all of them. They don’t want to hear that right now. They just want to get away and be with their families, which I totally understand.

“They deserve all the plaudits that they’ve had and they deserve all the plaudits that they are possibly going to get because no-one expected us to be in the final. I’m not sure the Premier League expected us to be here. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I expected us to go this far, but this team continue to confound that and they continue to answer the questions that are being thrown at them.”

That strength of character is something Murty refuses to take any acceptance in instilling within his players. For all both he and assistant John Hewitson have established a close-knit group amongst the club’s young players, and have re-established what had become a rundown, weary programme at the Academy of Light, it is the players who he continuously credits for the mentality and resolve shown in coming from behind three times to defeat West Ham on penalties or grabbing a 99th minute equaliser and a 120th minute winner against Reading or, by his own admission, going toe-to-toe with the best team in the country in Tottenham.

We Are Sunderland: Sunderland's under-21s have shown huge improvements this season and throughout their play-off campaign Sunderland's under-21s have shown huge improvements this season and throughout their play-off campaign (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Murty and his staff have developed an impressive brand and philosophy of football at Eppleton Colliery, one the players do not stray from regardless of their opponent or situational circumstances within games. In Sunday’s final with Spurs, goalkeeper Adam Richardson continuously played out from the back into one of his two centre-backs or holding midfield players through the lines, despite the high press invoked from Tottenham’s talented attacking line.

For Murty, though, there is a suggestion that things go beyond the x’s and o’s of the tactics board being put into practice on a match day.

“That’s a good question…that’s a very good question,” he says when asked whether his proudest moment of the season has been the on or off-field development within his players. “I think, just when you come into the training ground and you see the interaction, the quality of conversation, the quality of personnel that we have and the kind of people that they are; you see it manifest on the pitch, I see it day-to-day in the way that they’re walking around the place and how they’re handling themselves.

“It’s a real testament to their work and their mindset and how much they’ve grown, so I credit them for that and I’m really proud of them for that.”




One of those players who has typified the word ‘development’ is midfielder Jones.

The 19-year-old has been one of the players to catch the eye of Sunderland’s first team staff this season having been called up to the senior squad during Mike Dodds’ interim spell in charge for games at Southampton and against Queens Park Rangers at the Stadium of Light in the Championship. Those experiences are what continue to drive the youngster who has demonstrated his versatility this season in both an attacking midfield role, with seven goals to his name in Premier League 2, and a defensive midfield role.

Jones was deployed in a more defensive-minded position in Sunday’s final but twice came close to getting his name on the scoresheet for Murty’s side when hitting the post and being denied by Luca Gunter from close range at the end of a captivating team move that showcased this team’s philosophy.

“It’s a game of millimetres in football,” says Jones. “I’ve been encouraged to shoot more from outside the box, I’ve worked on my technique of striking with Murts, which I was lacking at the start of the year, just that pure technique, but I think I displayed that.

“We created the chances, it’s just about putting them in the net.

“It’s a cruel game sometimes. I think we deserved a better scoreline than what it was, especially in the first half where we had a few chances we could have taken advantage of and that would have given a different complexion on the game. Obviously we didn’t, and the scoreline was what it was for a reason. They were able to put their chances away.”

We Are Sunderland: Sunderland twice hit the post in their Premier League 2 play-off final defeat to Tottenham HotspurSunderland twice hit the post in their Premier League 2 play-off final defeat to Tottenham Hotspur (Image: Sunderland AFC)

Jones, again, is a fine example of one of those players who has grown and developed on and off the field. The teenager has moved into his own home where he looks after his own nutrition and has his own routine of independence – the aspect of being a footballer which is often overlooked. For Jones, it’s part of the process, both in life and in what Murty is trying to advocate in his players.

“As you grow up you’ve got to experience these things,” he says.

Despite that independence, Jones is also aware of the support system around him and in place at the Academy of Light, whether that be through staff or from the senior players.

Jones has become a sponge for knowledge this season and has often leaned on the experience of the likes of Dan Neil, Corry Evans and Alex Pritchard throughout they year, depending on his position on a particular weekend, and has been able to use that to understand his role within the team more – the principle of ‘learning as much as you can.’

“It’s just whether you want to get them involved or not,” Jones says of seeking the experience of first team players. “It’s about going and asking them, which can be scary at times, but once you break that initial barrier of communication it’s great because senior players just want to help the younger players.

“It’s a very friendly club, everyone knows each other. And especially because the club is quite young now, we all have things in common. That comes from the top, the open communication, and if you need help it’s just about talking to people.”

Jones is interrupted by Murty, who seems reluctant to leave this arena - perhaps of the understanding that in doing so the affirmation of this wonderful season being over rings true, as he cracks a little joke with his midfielder: “Stop hitting the post, Jonesy!”

It’s a unique way of lifting the disappointment of not being able to reach their ultimate goal against Tottenham. Murty, in the immediacy of the full-time whistle, gathered his players and staff in a huddle on the field and shared a moment, undoubtedly praising them their endeavours this season, before they showed their class in remaining present and respectful throughout Tottenham’s trophy lift in the centre-circle.

We Are Sunderland: Sunderland finished runners-up in the Premier League 2 following a 3-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur at the Tottenham Hotspur StadiumSunderland finished runners-up in the Premier League 2 following a 3-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (Image: Sunderland AFC)

Murty spoke how those scenes should act as fuel to his squad in their challenge of bettering this season when they return to the Academy of Light in the summer, with Tottenham’s quality in key areas of the field, particularly with Lankshear, being something Murty is keen for players to benefit from in the long-term.

“I think it’s a really good learning curve for our players,” he tells We Are Sunderland. “They need to go up against people like that and they need to play against the best because it exposes weakness and it exposes frailty. I’m really happy for it to happen because it’s a learning environment.

“We’re very careful when we review to make sure they understand what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about something that’s going to be fatal to their career. We’re talking about an incident in the game where they’ve been challenged and they didn’t have the solutions. My job as a coach is to open up that world of solutions to them and then they have to pick.

“I can’t tell them what to do, I don’t do that to them, generally. But I can tell them where to look for the solution and when they come up with a really good one, that’ll be on them. It won’t be down to me, it’ll be down to them and understanding what was required at that time.”

Murty, like his squad, will head off for a break over the summer - his dual role with the club in assisting Dodds at first team level in the final months of the season have been full throttle. But where he has challenged his players to use this play-off final defeat to Tottenham as motivation for next season, the same will be said of him as he strives for improvement to the point where those pats on the back received at full-time from Tottenham's staff will be in congratulations next time, rather than condolence.