Tom Watson remains far from 'the finished article' but Sunderland's academy manager Graeme Murty understands why the winger is receiving such adulation on the back of an explosive season with the club's under-21s.

Watson was part of Sunderland's under-21s squad who reached the Premier League 2 play-off final last weekend against Tottenham Hotspur, with the 17-year-old impressing members of staff on both sides of the technical area despite Sunderland's 3-1 defeat at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. 

Murty's young team went into the final as underdogs but once again, as has been the case so often this season, performed above expectations in running Wayne Burnett's side close, with both Watson and midfielder Harrison Jones hitting the post for Sunderland on an afternoon which turned into a case of 'what might have been.'

Watson was involved in Sunderland's consolation goal deep into second half stoppage time when forcing goalkeeper Luca Gunter into a save which allowed Ukraine forward Timur Tuterov to convert after goals from Will Lankshear and George Abbott had taken the game, and the title, away from Murty's side. 

But the feel-good factor of Sunderland's academy exploits has been one of the stories of the season on Wearside, including the impact of Watson. The 17-year-old, similar to Chirs Rigg, has been able to bypass the under-18s age group at the Academy of Light to establish himself at a higher level, having featured just five times at under-18 level across all competitions. 

Instead, Watson has found himself a regular feature in the club's Premier League 2 campaign where he made six goal contributions in 11 appearances before a standout play-off campaign with two goals and two assists in four appearances, including an extra-time equaliser against West Ham United in the quarter-finals. 




Watson's exploits led to a significant clamour to see the teenager included in the senior squad during the final weeks of the season as Sunderland's first team laboured throughout the second half of their Championship campaign. Interim head coach Mike Dodds, who frequently visits Eppleton Colliery to observe academy fixtures, refrained from including Watson until the penultimate week of the season when he was named on the bench to face Watford at Vicarage Road before his involvement against Sheffield Wednesday at the Stadium of Light.

Watson replaced Jack Clarke in the closing stages of Sunderland's final game of the season for just his second Championship appearance and a brief glimpse of what could be in store next season and beyond.

But academy boss Murty has, again, issued caution regarding Watson and how he is used over the course of next season before admitting there remains plenty more to come from the exciting 17-year-old following his performance up against Nile John in the Premier League 2 play-off final.

We Are Sunderland: Tom Watson impressed for Sunderland during their Premier League 2 play-off final defeat to Tottenham HotspurTom Watson impressed for Sunderland during their Premier League 2 play-off final defeat to Tottenham Hotspur (Image: Sunderland AFC)

"He's a talent and people are looking at him," Murty explained. "I’m not surprised they had to take their right-back off because he was getting the better of him on a regular basis and we need to make sure he doesn’t get disheartened when that doesn’t turn into goals, we have to make sure we continue to develop him because he has some really good attributes but he is not the finished article yet.

"There’s still so much to come from him. And that, for me, is the best part of this job as a whole. We’ve barely scratched the surface with this group. There’s more to come.

"My challenge, and John’s [Hewitson] challenge, is to make sure we give them whatever is necessary to make the next part available to them in their development and their growth. We can’t give them too much, too soon.

"We have to make sure we drip-feed it into them at the right time and if anything, about my own role, that’s the thing I’m proudest of this year. We haven’t tried to give it to them too soon, we’ve given it to them in the right amount at the right time and they’ve lapped it up."

With speculation likely to continue regarding the future of Clarke at first team level this summer, Watson could very well find himself part of the first team squad during the club's pre-season trip to Spain in July. Sunderland are expected to include a number of Murty's squad as part of their training camp, which is set to include two fixtures in Alicante, while the club's under-18s will predominantly make up the development squad that travels to Italy in pre-season.

If Clarke, who has recently been linked with a move to Southampton, leaves this summer, it will create a possible opening for someone like Watson in the first team squad with the likes of Romaine Mundle, Nazariy Rusyn and Abdoullah Ba struggling to nail down a regular starting spot this season across the forward line - Jewison Bennette another expected to return from his loan spell in Greece and compete for a place in the starting line-up next season. 

Watson, who turns 18 later this year, impressed a number of Tottenham's staff in Sunderland's Premier League 2 play-off final defeat but he fits the mould of Sunderland's club philosophy and, as with Rigg's progression, will be considered a big asset at the Academy of Light, with the next stage of his development key.