Graeme Murty knows a thing or two about success in this part of the country, Berkshire.

As a player, for over a decade Murty called this stretch of the Thames Valley home with Reading where he went on to achieve incredible success in playing an integral role in the club’s rise from Division Two to an eighth-place finish in its first ever season in the Premier League.

Murty was, at the time, Reading’s highest transfer fee spent on a player from York City but he would go on to repay that sum and then some as he became one of the club’s great players with over 300 appearances and a place in the all-time XI at full-back, having captained the side to what still stands as the Championship’s record points total of 106. Murty went on to wind down his playing days with Charlton Athletic and Southampton ahead of his step into coaching and his eventual arrival at the Academy of Light in 2022.

It meant there was an added subplot to Sunderland’s visit to the Select Car Leasing Stadium on Monday for the under-21s.

“I’ll give him a mention because he played for Reading and is a bit of a legend here and he’s come here and beat them. He didn’t want anything less,” Sunderland’s hat-trick hero Ellis Taylor said of Murty.

“We needed to win and we’ve done that for him and he couldn’t be any happier for us.”


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For Murty, it was difficult to put into words. There was almost an element of reservation to his deep-rooted delight at what his young development side had achieved across the two hours of pulsating football that had transpired.

For Sunderland to even be at this stage of proceedings was a surprise before producing another enthralling finish to book their spot in the Premier League 2 final. Having gone the distance in the quarter-final with West Ham United a week ago at Eppleton Colliery, where three times they came form behind to force a penalty shootout against one of the strongest teams in the division, Sunderland again found themselves going 120 minutes in Berkshire.

That was, despite, a stunning first half in which they were unfortunate to take only a one goal lead in at the break. Taylor, whom it was confirmed would see his 12-year stay with the club come to an end this summer, produced a breathtaking opener when cutting inside from the right before bending a perfect strike into the top corner. It would light a fire in the 21-year-old who produced, arguably, his best ever display in Sunderland’s academy set-up at just the right time.

We Are Sunderland: Ellis Taylor scored a hat-trick for Sunderland under-21s in the Premier League 2 semi-final win over ReadingEllis Taylor scored a hat-trick for Sunderland under-21s in the Premier League 2 semi-final win over Reading (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Sunderland were in complete control against a team who finished one place above them in the league table, who had also beaten them earlier in the season, before a lapse in concentration allowed Jayden Wareham to equalise from a set piece. Despite the setback, Murty’s team continued in the ascendancy, complimenting the style of play ingrained into them by Murty and his staff as Taylor doubled his and Sunderland’s tally for the night with another exquisite finish when lashing in from Caden Kelly’s pass inside. The duo almost combined again when Taylor latched onto a wonderful lofted ball from Kelly only for Coniah Boyce-Clarke to smother.

But Sunderland, at any level, senior, development or women’s, don’t do things easily and in the second half they were put under extreme pressure from the home side where Murty’s persistent advocation of the teams’ resolve and resilience would be tested. In the build-up to the game, Murty claimed he was looking forward to seeing how his players would stand up to that challenge from Reading but, in practice, it was perhaps a more demanding watch.

Two goals in as many minutes saw Reading flip the game on its head with just 15 minutes for Sunderland to salvage something. A week ago, they twice hit back against West Ham in extra-time instantly. Here, things dragged on as fatigue set in from those previous exertions at the end of a long season.




This group of players, however, have demonstrated a unique ‘never say die’ attitude – an attitude Taylor himself will be familiar with as a boyhood Hartlepool United fan given it is their club motto and having spent time on loan there. As Tom Watson and Oliver Bainbridge seemed to grow in stature as the game wore on, their energy levels somehow increasing, it ended up being Taylor who encapsulated that motto when being on hand to fire home a dramatic equaliser in the ninth minute of stoppage time with the final kick of the game to, again, force extra-time.

“I can’t give them that,” said an emotional Murty. “As much as we can work on things in training and give them scenarios where it’s difficult for them, and as much as we challenge their emotional maturity, I can’t replicate what they’ve just gone through. So for them to dig within themselves, really deep, and come up with the answers is, mentally, an outstanding attribute to have.

“Hopefully they use this in the future and can say to themselves when things get tough that they can rely on themselves, and they can rely on each other. They will have a well of belief and a well of competence at coping with stress. That is really an invaluable tool.

“As much as we talk about technique and physique and all of these things that go into making a really top class footballer, that well there when things go really badly, to continue going and not chuck the towel in is not something really me or my staff can give them. It has to be something that’s inherent within them and they’ve had to dig deep. Reading have pushed us the entire way, they’ve put us under massive stress, but the lads have come out of it and the relief in there, but also the congratulations to one another, has been outstanding to see.

“This group of young men have grown beyond all recognition this year. Hopefully you can see it, hopefully the people at home can see it, I certainly hope their parents can see it because they deserve a hell of a lot of credit.”

We Are Sunderland: Graeme Murty heaped praise on his Sunderland academy side after they reached the Premier League 2 play-off finalGraeme Murty heaped praise on his Sunderland academy side after they reached the Premier League 2 play-off final (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Jacob Hammond-Chambers-Borgnis’ red card moments before the interval in extra-time provided Sunderland with an advantage for the final 15 minutes as both teams succumbed to the physical demands of such a taxing game. But with Murty set to pull out the pen and paper to draft up his list of five penalty takers, Sunderland’s young squad provided another moment of inspiration with the final act of the game.

Kelly’s free kick from the right bounced around the penalty area before Belgian striker Trey Ogunsuyi, a player who first joined the Academy of Light in 2016 as an under-10 and has gone on to represent the club at every age group, scored his second goal of this play-off campaign with another remarkable finish to take Sunderland to the final.

“He had one just before it that was very similar so for him to keep going and for him not to lose belief and carry on understanding what we’re trying to do is outstanding,” said Murty. “But I think it takes a lot of moving parts for him to get that opportunity. For us to be relentless and continue to press and continue to push and to fashion that last opportunity for him, takes a hell of a lot of people – a load of work from a lot of lads and then it requires calmness from a very, very young man.

“Just to trust his technique and the work he does day-to-day and to not worry about the outcome and it was an excellent finish. I felt for the Reading players. You could see it was just too much for them at the end, too much for them to take. But although I feel sympathy for them, once again I have to give praise to our lads for continuing to go and do things in the right way and the lads have now got a final to look forward to.”

Murty’s emotion was tangible. A club who he holds in such high regard, with players and staff he respects, balanced with the unbridled joy of his current role and the success Sunderland’s academy continue to show after years of struggle.

In last week’s quarter-final with West Ham, Sunderland included midfielder Chris Rigg, a player currently away with England’s under-17s set-up in Cyprus for their European Championship campaign and a player who has attracted the interest of a host of elite clubs this summer. Rigg may be the poster-boy of Sunderland’s blossoming academy restructuring, but there are several success stories already being written with this group of players – led by a captain whose story will conclude after this weekend’s final in Taylor.

“I’m really pleased for him. I thought he was excellent today and hopefully he can have a nice reflection on that and get himself healthy for the final, because we had to take him off, unfortunately,” said Murty.


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“I’m trying to be calm for the players because they deserve a calm reflection,” he added. “They were excellent in the first half; structured, controlled, we dominated the game. We could have had many more goals because we had lots of opportunities and I thought for 10 minutes in the second half we were really good. Then Reading upped the tempo and their intensity and we looked a little bit flustered, which is normal, and we put ourselves in a hole.

“You look and you think: ‘what have you got left?’ From scoring two absolutely sublime goals in the first half, Ellis pops up with a really important one for the team at the end. But I thought it was the least the lads deserved for 65 minutes of the performance and then in extra-time it gets a little bit skewed because of the sending off.

“I’ve got to take my hat off to Reading. I thought when we handled that 10 minutes in the second half we were going to accelerate away from them but they’re relentless and they’re physically intense and they’re imposing and they’re very, very good at what they do. They’ve got some really good players.

"Our players have been in a test and they’ve been challenged. But as a learning experience for them to stand up to it again, for the resilience required to dig out a result when maybe our A-game didn’t work was outstanding. I take my hat off to them, I’ve got nothing but praise for them.

“No one, I don’t think, at the start of the season would have foreseen that outcome. But they like proving people wrong and they like challenges and sometimes they like to make it really hard for themselves. But I can’t do anything other than praise their spirit.”

We Are Sunderland: Chris Rigg is with England's under-17s squad for their European Championship finals campaign in CyprusChris Rigg is with England's under-17s squad for their European Championship finals campaign in Cyprus (Image: Ian Horrocks)

It means Sunderland will now face Tottenham Hotspur in the final of the Premier League 2 play-offs this weekend after Wayne Burnett’s side beat Chelsea with a stoppage time winner on Sunday. Tottenham lost just two league games all season as they finished four points above West Ham at the top of the table, a season which has already included two wins over Sunderland; 4-2 in the league and 2-1 in the Premier League Cup.

So, will it be third time lucky for Sunderland in North London?

“Firstly, they have to be professional athletes. They have to recover. They have to make sure they don’t give themselves that excuse of not eating the right thing, not getting enough rest in,” Murty said of preparations for the final.

“We have to be really professional by making sure we provide an environment where they can recover properly and I said to them in there; they get to choose how the story ends. They chose today that it wasn’t going to finish. Today they chose we’re going to get another crack at it.

“All they can do is give themselves the opportunity and I am immensely proud of them. No matter what happens in the final, I will still be immensely proud of them. But I want them to continue this growth and continue this journey and challenge themselves to go up against what is, statistically, the best team in the country throughout the year and go toe-to-toe with them and have that belief that they deserve to be there because throughout the last couple of rounds they’ve really proved that they do.

“For us as a football club, I think it’s a gritty realisation of the requirements of playing for the club. You have to have resilience, you have to have resolve, you have to have hard work and sometimes just a pig-headed refusal stay down can see you through."