From Premier League 2 'whipping boys' to beating some of the best academies in England. It's been quite the turnaround for Sunderland Under-21s this season.

We Are Sunderland could wax lyrical about the displays of Graeme Murty and John Hewitson's side this season, but we'll let the penalty shootout win over West Ham United tell the story.

The Hammers finished second in the Premier League 2 table - eight points ahead of Sunderland - comfortably dispatching Blackburn Rovers 4-1 in the last 16 of the play-offs to set up a quarter final clash with the Black Cats at Eppleton. Steve Potts' side have been one of, if not the standout performers this season, arriving in County Durham with two recent Premier League debutants in their starting XI.

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George Earthy - who was the dangerman for the visitors on Monday night - came off the bench to score for David Moyes' first-team in their 3-1 win over Luton Town at the weekend, while Kaelan Casey also came off the bench for West Ham.

The London based outfit had beaten the Black Cats 2-0 earlier in the season and headed north as the favourites to reach the semi-finals. It was a cagey first-half, but not one where Sunderland looked out of their depth.

The Black Cats had plenty of half chances in a tight affair, but it was the visitors who took the lead with their first shot on target, the aforementioned Casey rising highest to nod a corner down into the path of Gideon Kodua, who blasted the ball into the roof of the net beyond Adam Richardson.

Sunderland will have felt aggrieved not to have been at least level at the break, with Tommy Watson, Harrison Jones and Caden Kelly all lively. But it was one of their more experienced players - captain Ellis Taylor who stood up to be counted, equalising with a brilliant right-footed drive into the top corner to send the tie to extra-time.

There were 831 in attendance to watch a swashbuckling display from Murty's men - a performance we were accustomed to seeing at first-team level last season under Tony Mowbray. It was end-to-end from the first whistle, to the last.

The rampaging runs from Oli Bainbridge at left-back, while also being a rock at the back, a clear sign - if it were needed - that Sunderland must do their best to fend off any advances from Everton who are said to be keen on signing the young defender this summer.

The Black Cats pushed for a winner and looked like the only team who would win the tie, but West Ham took the lead through Patrick Kelly just before the midway point of extra time. Sunderland failed to clear their lines and the Northern Irishman picked out the bottom corner with a sweet low drive, leaving Richardson with no chance.

That goal gave the visitors a shot in the arm, the Hammers starting the second-half of extra time as they finished the first, centre-half Michael Forbes, who was impressive at the back, striking the post with a long-range effort.

Sunderland's backs were against the wall - as it has been on so many occasions this season - up stepped Kelly with a moment of magic, curling the ball into the top corner from the edge of the area to restore parity at 2-2 with just minutes left to play.

We Are Sunderland: Caden Kelly makes it 2-2 in Sunderland U21s clash with West Ham United with a long range effort.Caden Kelly makes it 2-2 in Sunderland U21s clash with West Ham United with a long range effort. (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Sunderland now had the impetus, but West Ham broke up the other end and a tired tackle from Bainbridge saw referee Aaron Bannister point to the spot. A game not short of any drama took another twist when Lewis Osford's penalty struck the post and the hosts cleared their lines.

The Black Cats were still alive and breathing.

For a minute at least. Not deterred by the penalty miss, Callum Marshall grabbed what looked like a certain winner for the Hammers in the dying embers to make it 3-2.

If we know anything from covering the young Black Cats this season, it's they don't know when they're beaten. One final attack saw Trey Ogunsuyi try to bundle the ball over the line, it popped up to Tommy Watson who jabbed the loose ball t into the back of the net at the far post, to send the tie to penalties.

We Are Sunderland: Tommy Watson scores to make it Sunderland 3-3 West Ham United and send the tie to penalties.Tommy Watson scores to make it Sunderland 3-3 West Ham United and send the tie to penalties. (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Sunderland scored all five of their penalties, while goalkeeper Richardson was the hero, denying Keenan Appiah-Forson's fourth penalty, to tee up a semi-final clash with Reading.

“It was exciting, draining, especially watching from the sidelines,” assistant coach John Hewitson said after the match at Eppleton CW. “I’m just ever so proud of how they’ve come back three times. When they scored the third goal I think a lot of teams would have probably folded and gone under. 

“I’m over the moon and the staff are over the moon about how the players kept going, kept going, got the equaliser. Then we were just clinical in the penalty shootout and thankfully Adam saved their fourth penalty - it was a great save. Lots of drama, we could be here all night talking about it but thankfully we were on the winning end of the game.”

The resilience of the young group of Sunderland players cannot be questioned. Again, coming from behind to win the tie.

"It's that never say die spirit, that no surrender spirit that is a North East working class mentality where people put up with what they shouldn't," Hewitson explained when trying to make sense of another enthralling encounter. "They get on with it with a smile on their face and they always try make sure they overcome adversity that's put in front of them.

"The lads, we have given ourselves a mountain to climb in a lot of game but they've always come back. We've played against some top teams and given them a head start and bypass them. It's fantastic.

"I think there's a lot of players that are quite humble that have come through the system. The likes of Oli Bainbridge and Henry Fieldson will just run through a brick wall for you and just get about their business. I could name the whole team really not just individuals.

£They run through a brick wall because they want to do well for themselves, but ultimately do well for the team. You'd have them in the starting team as much as possible really. There's some fantastic leaders within the group and like I said, Murts [Greame Murty] and myself didn't have to say much in the intervals because the players lead that themselves.

"There was a few interjections that we made but the players, a lot of the time self manage, so it makes our life a bit easier but it makes it that bit more powerful when the players are saying it themselves."

We Are Sunderland: Sunderland's players celebrate after beating West Ham on penalties.Sunderland's players celebrate after beating West Ham on penalties. (Image: Ian Horrocks)

When asked if there was an interjection before penalties, Hewitson revealed: “A lot of it was player-led. We have some really good characters in the group so Ellis Taylor, the captain, and Caden Kelly pretty much did the talk, just in terms of ‘be confident, understand where you’re going, don’t change your mind,’ all them little things.

“The players stepped forward and did that for us and sometimes that’s probably more beneficial when they take ownership so we’re really happy with that stance.

“The last few games with it being a knockout competition we have planned for it (a penalty shootout) but it’s very difficult to recreate the atmosphere. I think the locals did us a favour trying to put them off, banging the boards, and there was a really good atmosphere tonight. We’ve given them a real spectacle of a game so hopefully they’ll keep coming back next season.”

While first-team performances this season have been dismal in the second-half of the campaign, the Under-21s have gone from strength to strength. The rebuilding of structure at the Academy of Light under Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman is a real feather in the cap of the current ownership.

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"From where they've come - I've been involved with the Under-21s for three seasons now and from where they've come from to now, it's lightyears apart now," Hewitson stressed. "That's not just myself, the group of staff, the players buying in to what we want to achieve and ultimately it's been a change in mentality.

"There's been times where we were the whipping boys and it was tough, to pitting our wits against some of the top, elite European sides.

"I'm really looking forward to seeing how they come back after the break and how they develop. Hopefully pushing towards the first-team and getting in squads. Let's see what the 18's below can do when they step up."