Harrison Jones believes the progress made by Sunderland's under-21s this season can be the platform to kickstart the rest of their careers as several members of Graeme Murty's academy side look to move closer towards senior football on the back of a hugely successful 2023-24 campaign. 

Jones has been a mainstay in Sunderland's under-21s over the last year having started in 18 of the club's 20 Premier League 2 regular season fixtures before starting all four of their play-off ties.

The 19-year-old signed his first professional deal with his boyhood club last summer on the back of a solid season in the under-18s programme where he made six goal contributions. Jones has been part of the club for a number of years but had struggled with injury prior to signing his professional deal 12 months ago, where he has gone on to have a major impact in the success of Murty's team this year.

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Jones has offered versatility to Murty's line-up by being able to operate in either a deep-lying midfield role or a more advanced area of the field - roles he has been able to understand and develop thanks to help from senior players throughout the year. 

With the academy often called into first team training sessions, Jones has utilised the time and exposure he has had alongside the senior players at the Academy of Light to tap into their experience and expertise in order to learn more about the roles he is often tasked with by Murty and the rest of the academy staff.

"I don’t really mind where I'm playing, as long as I’m playing," said Jones. "There’s obviously different responsibilities that come in each position, but it’s a good part of my game that I’m able to adapt and play different positions which can be used as a selling point of my game.

"Dan [Neil] and Corry [Evans] have definitely helped my game – I did lots of analysis with [Corry] this year which has helped me play the deeper position. Him giving me his understanding of the game has definitely helped me out of possession. Before he left, Pritchard helped me going forward, so it’s just the constant learning that’s helped me.

"It’s just whether you want to get them involved," he added. "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."

We Are Sunderland: Harrison Jones scored seven times for Sunderland's under-21s during the 2023-24 campaignHarrison Jones scored seven times for Sunderland's under-21s during the 2023-24 campaign (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Jones' desire to learn goes beyond that of asking senior players for their advice. It continues into the analyst room where the midfielder can often be found alongside Josh Goodfellow, the club's lead performance analyst, as the pair run through his individual clips on a weekly basis. 

In the past, Murty has challenged his young group of players to identify themselves what they believe they've done well and what they could improve on and Jones is one who takes full accountability in that regard. 

"That’s what Murts and John [Hewitson] have reiterated all year," he said.  

"I’ve obviously gotten things wrong, but that’s where you get most of your learning from. A lot of thanks should go to Josh, who has gone into pretty much every part of my game with Murts and almost reconstructed me into an ‘elite’ player as such.

"He gets all of our individual clips up and then we'll go through them with Murts. Then it's about putting things into practice. I’ve constantly worked on the training pitch and just enjoyed it, really. That’s one of the main things; having that hunger to improve and keep going to the next level."

That hunger and desire to go to the next level was rewarded for Jones this season as he was named in Mike Dodds' first team squad on two occasions in the final months of the Championship campaign.

With Sunderland's senior squad depleted by injury, Dodds had little hesitation in turning to the club's academy and promoting a number of players for games at Southampton and at home to Queens Park Rangers with Jones, Thomas Lavery, Caden Kelly and Oliver Bainbridge all receiving the call up over the course of those two fixtures. 

We Are Sunderland: Harrison Jones was named on the bench for Sunderland's Championship fixtures with Southampton and Queens Park RangersHarrison Jones was named on the bench for Sunderland's Championship fixtures with Southampton and Queens Park Rangers (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Although Jones never made it onto the pitch in either of those games, it was an experience that will stay with him, and one which continues to drive his ambition heading into next season.

"The more minutes you can get with them you feel more confident and identify what they’re good at and what I need to improve at," he said. "For me, physically I’m probably not at their standard yet.

"They’re more explosive than me, which is something I need to work on.

"The end goal is to get to the next level in the first team which Tommy [Watson] has been able to do this year and that’s great for him. All the team want that."

Jones' under-21s team-mate, Tom Watson, came off the bench in Sunderland's final game of the season against Sheffield Wednesday, two days before featuring in the 21s' play-off round of 16 tie with Wolverhampton Wanderers - a game in which he scored and assisted in.

Watson has been the name on a number of headlines and supporters' lips in the final weeks of the season, owing to his raw ability in the club's academy side, as demonstrated even in defeat at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium recently. But Jones, too, continues to shine, having scored seven times this season - a tally he almost added to against Tottenham when hitting the post.

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But while Jones' aspirations are to feature for the club he supports at a senior level, the immediate focus will be on trying to improve on an excellent season at development level, having finished runners-up in the Premier League 2 play-offs.

"We deserve to be here," he said. "You shouldn’t hold yourself to any expectations because the limits are endless. And that’s been proven this year. Hopefully it’s only the first step in our long careers.

"It’s made everyone even more hungry and enthused to keep going and hopefully we can go one better next year."