Sunderland's under-21s produced another hugely spirited display despite falling narrowly short in their Premier League 2 play-off final with Tottenham Hotspur in North London.

Graeme Murty's young team lost 3-1 to league winners Spurs at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium thanks to a double from player of the season Will Lankshear and captain George Abbott's late strike.

Sunderland were twice denied by the post in what was a valiant effort from Murty's team before Timur Tuterov grabbed a more-than deserved consolation in the final minute of stoppage time.

Lankshear converted from close range five minutes before half-time when turning in Jude Soonsup-Bell's low cross from the right before Harrison Jones came within the width of the post of levelling before the break. 

Sunderland hit the woodwork again soon after the break when Tom Watson met Tuterov's cross at the back post before Lankshear punished Murty's team on the hour with a clinical finish.

Having gone back-to-back 120 minutes in both the quarter and semi-finals, a leggy Sunderland weren't able to find the goal which might have caused Wayne Burnett's side some concern heading into the closing stages before Abbott was able to turn a third beyond Adam Richardson at the second time of asking in second half stoppage time. 

Sunderland didn't leave North London empty-handed, however, as Tuterov converted a rebound from Watson's long-range effort to at least hand Murty's team something to show for their endeavours on the scoreboard at Spurs' academy were crowned champions in their own stadium.

We Are Sunderland reacts to Sunderland finishing runners-up in Premier League 2


A chance to express on the big stage

After what has been a memorable campaign for Sunderland’s academy side this season, the overriding message was for one of enjoyment.

Head coach Murty had detailed how his side have ‘gone to the well’ a number of times this year, but particularly in recent weeks throughout their play-off campaign.

Sunderland’s young side have trailed in all three of their games on their way to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium against Wolverhampton Wanderers, West Ham United and Reading but, on each occasion, have found huge resolve and resilience to fight back including going the distance on penalties against West Ham before booking their spot in the final in the final minute of extra-time at Reading.

It provided this group of players with the unique opportunity to go and express themselves on this grandest of stages, in one of the finest stadiums in world football in front of a healthy crowd in North London. And while the result may not have gone their way, with Spurs lifting the Premier League 2 trophy, Sunderland’s players, again, more than held their own.

In the first half, it was Murty’s team who had the better of the chances with Henry Fieldson glancing wide from a header and Watson, Jones and Ellis Taylor all going close. Beyond chances, however, it was the noticeable composure of Murty’s players which was equally as pleasing. Ben Middlemas, on several occasions, brought possession out from the back having received play under big pressure from goalkeeper Richardson – a tactic persistently encouraged by Murty, regardless of any mistakes.

Sunderland were twice denied by the woodwork where, on another day, they would have perhaps dragged another game the distance – Jones’ effort in particular the culmination of a fine attacking move built from the back involving six outfield players from the right-back area to the Spurs penalty area.

As Sunderland’s players were left to watch on as Tottenham celebrated with the trophy, the fatigue from an elongated campaign undoubtedly setting in, there was an enormous sense of pride from those travelling Sunderland supporters and from Murty, John Hewitson and the rest of the academy staff at what has been an excellent campaign.


Will Lankshear levels

For all Murty was keen to ensure his players enjoyed the occasion, keeping Lankshear quiet will have been at the forefront of his game plan and tactical focus given the former Sheffield United forward's impact in Premier League 2 this season with 18 goals in 19 league appearances, including one against Sunderland in October’s 4-2 win at Eppleton Colliery, and three more on their way to the play-off final. Lankshear has also scored three times on the international stage this season with England’s under-19s meaning it was little surprise when he was named the PL2 player of the season.

The 19-year-old has forged a pathway for himself to be considered of interest by Championship clubs ahead of next season, with Sunderland’s North East neighbours Middlesbrough having been credited with a move for the young forward who joined Tottenham for a reported £2million from Bramall Lane in 2022. And while Murty will have been impressed with how his players handled the talismanic forward for much of the first half, including a more than rough welcome from Luke Bell in early early stages, Lankshear demonstrated why he is so highly regarded, particularly at this level, five minutes before the break.

As Sunderland looked to regain possession from Luca Gunter’s clearance up field, Abbott was able to steal ahead of Middlemas on halfway to free Soonsup-Bell on the right. Abbott continued his run to overload Oliver Bainbridge at full-back and received the return pass from Soonsup-Bell and his low cross found Lankshear around six-yards from goal to open the scoring.

And the 19-year-old doubled his and Tottenham’s lead on the hour mark with a typically emphatic finish to finally see off this brave Sunderland side.

The striker held is run in the penalty area to create space for himself from Soonsup-Bell’s reverse ball from the right and powered beyond Richardson. Lankshear has now scored in 15 of his Premier League 2 appearances for Spurs this season, with 32 goals in all competitions, and, in doing so again against Sunderland here, produced a timely reminder of where Murty’s team are striving to get to at the very top of development football. The caveat for Sunderland is that they won’t face a player of Lankshear’s clinical ability every week next season.


Ellis Taylor farewell

It was a game of added significance for Sunderland’s academy captain Taylor, who was representing Sunderland for the final time in North London after over a decade with the club.

Taylor was one of 11 academy players who will see their time with the club come to an end and it has been a memorable period for the 21-year-old, who played an instrumental role in Sunderland reaching the final with four goals in the play-off stage.

An emotional Taylor could be seen taking in his surroundings before the game and upon entering the field, greeting friends and family who had made the journey, before exchanging the club’s pennant with pride.

It may be the right time for Taylor to move onto pastures new this summer, given his limited first team involvement despite being one of the senior players at this level, but his attitude and application in the final weeks of the campaign, even after news of his future was confirmed, has been an example to the rest of the squad ahead of next season.


Who might step up next season for Sunderland? 

In the aftermath of this defeat there will be reflection, and Sunderland will be able to look at a team like Tottenham when in that reflection. This is a seasoned side at academy level in comparison to Sunderland who still have several players crossing over between the age groups with limited experience at the top end of academy football.

It’s worth noting again how Murty’s team, but for the league’s restructuring, would not have been competing with the likes of Tottenham this season, instead in Division Two. This season has allowed Sunderland’s emerging young talent to thrive to the point many supporters will now be asking the question; which players are ready to step up to the first team?

On several occasions this season we have seen a number of the academy players utilised in first team squads to earn important experience as to how senior players go about their business on a week-by-week basis. The club routinely integrate the academy players into first team training sessions which also provides key learning opportunities they have been able to bring into their own campaign.

The decision next season will be which of this group would benefit from moving out on loan into men’s football and who would be better suited to another year with the club’s academy? Watson, on the back of his substitute appearance on the final day of the season against Sheffield Wednesday, feels best-placed to follow Chris Rigg in breaking into the first team set-up, while the likes of Caden Kelly, Bainbridge and Trey Ogunsuyi have also given strong accounts of themselves in the closing weeks of the season.


Runners up: What a season

Whichever players may, or may not, leave on loan next season, it’s, ultimately, the culmination of an excellent season for the club’s academy and development structure.

Having been overlooked for a number of years, Sunderland finally feels like a place where emerging talent can blossom once more, with a clear pathway to the first team in place.

The club lost just six of their 20 league games this season before going the distance in the play-offs, ultimately falling narrowly short to the league’s best team in Tottenham – a team who have lost just twice all season long.

Sunderland have finished above previous Premier League 2 championship winners and hugely established academies, as well as a Crystal Palace 21s team who have recently clinched the international cup – a competition Sunderland will once again find themselves in next season.

The signs, in that sense, are deeply encouraging, despite the disappointment of missing out on the top step this season. The biggest issue for Murty and his staff will be how they go about improving on a season as bright as this.