You have to go back to 2020/21 for some sort of academy cheer on the banks of Wearside and even then, a Sunderland U23s side -  that contained the likes of Anthony Patterson, Dan Neil and Ellis Taylor - lost in the Premier League 2 Play-Off Final against Crystal Palace on penalties. They're the last group of academy talents to break into the first-team set-up but we could be on the brink of another wave in the coming months.

It's no secret, the academy set-up was stripped to the bare minimum under the previous ownership during the Covid-19 pandemic, something former owner Charlie Methven says was key in keeping the club afloat. Since Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman's arrival, there's been a concerted effort into building up the foundations for the future.

There's been little to shout about on the pitch for the first-team, but the Under-21s, under the guidance of former Reading defender Graeme Murty, have defied the odds and continue to go from strength to strength. Last season, the Black Cats finished third bottom of Premier League 2 Division 2, with five wins, five draws and ten defeats finishing the lowest of any North East based side.

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But this season has been a different story entirely. When the Premier League announced plans to merge the two development leagues into a similar format which we'll see imposed in the Champions League from next season, you'll be forgiven for thinking Sunderland would be on the receiving end of a number of hidings. But that's been far from the case.

Their play-off campaign has been a shining light for the club this summer, beating an illustrious Liverpool side - that contained a number of rising stars who already have first-team experience in the Premier League and Carabao Cup Final - to secure their play-off berth, just one of a number of impressive displays. The Black Cats won ten of their twenty games with four draws, to finish seventh and bring European academy football to Wearside next season.

A young group full of confidence, ability and an identity.

In years gone by, that hasn't been the case with academy talents falling at the wayside, one or two have shown promise but there hasn't been a pathway to the first-team. There certainly hasn't been a sense of unity like there is in the current group. Murty has played a key part in that. 

As the young Black Cats walked off the pitch triumphant in their Premier League 2 Play-Off knockout win over Wolves on Monday, there smiles and laughter as the head coach joked he knew Trey Ogunsuyi and Timur Tutierov would score yesterday afternoon.

The club have expertly managed the balance of Under-18s and Under-21s, moving players up and down age groups, while also handing first-team players minutes when required. It must be said, the inclusion of first-team players has at times, impacted the fluidity of games.

Those that were at Eppleton on Monday afternoon, were treat to some of the best football they'll have seen this season, including the first-team set-up.

Tommy Watson was among the standout performers, scoring the third goal of the game to only heighten calls for some first-team action in pre-season. Harrison Jones, Caden Kelly and Ellis Taylor are among the elders in the group but stood up to be counted and produce moments of quality in the game.

When you add in Trey Ogunsuyi's first Premier League 2 goal at just 17-years-old, leading the line expertly against players much older and more experienced than himself, only bodes well for the future.

We Are Sunderland: Trey Ogunsuyi scores Sunderland's second goal in the 4-1 win over Wolves.Trey Ogunsuyi scores Sunderland's second goal in the 4-1 win over Wolves. (Image: Ian Horrocks)For further context, Wolves fielded Enso Gonazalez a €6million summer signing in 2023 from Paraguayan outfit Libertad and PSG loanee Noah Lemina, younger brother of Wolves first-team star Mario. Sunderland's starting XI cost the club nothing, packed to the brim with local talent.

It's context like this which makes the Black Cats' second goal against Wolves even more special. Murty's side work the ball from back to front in 15 passes before Ogunsuyi adds the finishing touch, blasting the ball beyond Jimmy Storer from the edge of the six-yard box to make the score 2-1.

Sunderland are a side transformed under Murty's guidance, along with the help of John Hewitson and the rest of the academy staff. Not phased by Adam Richardson's first-half mistake as they tried to play out from the back, they stuck to their guns and continue to be bold and play through the phases - as they have done all season.

“I’m very proud of the players,” Murty said. “I’m really proud of the resilience they showed after going behind and the intent they showed to continue to play the way we wanted them to play. I think they deserve a lot more people coming to see them because of the quality they showed, the intensity they showed and that little bit of guts, to come from behind against a very good team. I think in that second half the players can be immensely proud of their efforts.

"When I first came in, I said they're going to make mistakes. They're going to give the ball away. It's going to cost goals. That's my fault. It's not their fault. I'm going to take all ownership of that, it's my fault I tell them to do that. I am really, really open and honest with them. I tell them to play out. If you get caught on the ball, don't worry about it. That's me, because I demand that we do that.

"We as a staff demand that we play that way. So they're going to make mistakes and it's the best way they can learn. As much as I can recreate it in training, the best way that they can learn is failure. They get instant feedback from this. It's not fatal to the game or their career, it's just a learning opportunity and we use that all the time. Obviously they feel pressure because it's a knockout game, but we've drilled it into them from the get go, that we're going to demand they continue to play and we're going to accept the mistakes.

"Because they're brilliant teaching and learning opportunities from it. The more they do it, the better they're going to be. Hopefully, when you see them and they understand 'I made this mistake last week, I need to do this, this week.' Then they go and carry it out in a critical moment. The goal is the pleasing moment. I understand that, it looks really good. Their capacity to learn and grow, and get better, I think that has shone through this year."

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Coming from behind has been a feat Sunderland U21s have replicated so many times this season.

Granted, Murty would rather his side didn't leave themselves with work to do, but the character of the current U21s group should not come into question. Trailing 5-0 at home to Manchester United earlier in the season, only to level in the dying embers of injury time through Jewison Bennette to earn a point - the perfect example. In previous years, Sunderland sides have wilted under the pressure.

"It's something we talk about and we work with them every single day," Murty said when asked if the resilience this group has shown is something that can be taught or whether it's engrained into them. "We deliberately put them into stressful situations but we obviously let them have safe failure within the academy.

"We let them lose, we let them struggle and we don't give them every possible solution. We show them a solution and show them a pathway but we don't give it to them. They have to do that themselves and I think a big part of our resilience training is giving deliberate things against them. Making them deliberately struggle in training is massive for us.

"The players, although they can moan about it and not be very happy about it, they've learned just to get on with it. My measure is, I look at their emotional level. I thought they were remarkably consistent today. They didn't get high, they didn't get too low.

"As a young group of athletes, they're quite immature at times - physically - they showed a real steadiness to their game to not let the game get out of sight when they didn't have control. When we did have control, they made really good decisions in the second half, far better than they did in the first half and that showed by how often we got into better situations in the second half."

We Are Sunderland: Tommy Watson scores Sunderland's third goal of the afternoon against Wolves.Tommy Watson scores Sunderland's third goal of the afternoon against Wolves. (Image: Ian Horrocks)

The win over Wolves now tees up one of their toughest tests of the season to date. A Quarter-Final clash with West Ham United, who finished the regular Premier League 2 campaign in second place, beating the Black Cats 2-0 earlier this season.

Murty and his young side will relish the challenge.


“West Ham finished second in the table and are up there with the top teams that we’ve played. I thought they were excellent at the start of the year. It will be an interesting measure of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve grown. We know it’s going to be a difficult game.

“What I’ve said to the players, they need to relish this opportunity. I said to them at the start that people sometimes wilt under pressure but the pressure of playing in the play-offs where you can get knocked out is a privilege. I want to see what they are made of and at half-time I challenged them again.

“For a team I thought were a little bit within themselves in the first half, I thought they thrived under that pressure. We put it on them purposely, we told them they were under pressure and they didn’t shirk from it. That’s a measure of their maturity as a group and the growth they’ve gone through this year.”