CHRIS COLEMAN will be targeting younger players as he looks to bring down the average age of Sunderland’s squad this summer, no matter what league the club finds itself playing in next season.

The Black Cats travel to Reading this afternoon knowing a victory is almost certainly essential if they are to have any chance of avoiding relegation to League One. Six points adrift of safety with four games remaining, Sunderland will surely have to close the gap to Bolton Wanderers in 21st position if they are to head into next weekend’s home game with Burton Albion with a realistic hope of scrambling to safety.

Whatever happens in the next four games, though, Coleman accepts he will have to oversee an extensive rebuilding programme in the summer, with seven members of Sunderland’s squad due to return to their permanent employers at the end of their loan deals and John O’Shea, Billy Jones, Marc Wilson and Kazenga LuaLua all due to become free agents.

The size of Coleman’s budget will be heavily influenced by what happens off the field, with Ellis Short still keen to sell up and move on. Whatever happens, though, the Black Cats boss will be targeting players in their early 20s as he feels the average age of the current squad is too high.

“If there was a player in their late 20s who would be great for us and had the right type of everything you need, I wouldn’t say no,” said Coleman. “But I’ll definitely be looking at younger players. We need to build a younger squad, I think.

“We need the players we’ve got now to give us what we’ve got, but I would imagine at the end of the season there would be players who don’t want to stay here. Nothing’s been talked about because we’re in the middle of this (relegation battle), so let’s take care of this. But there may be players who say, ‘This is not for me,’ which is fine.

“Looking at what we’ve got, it needs to be a more robust group, and we definitely need to bring the ages down.”

If Sunderland do find themselves rebuilding in League One, Coleman is likely to be reliant on a number of the younger players that have featured in the first team this season.

Donald Love, George Honeyman and Lynden Gooch have started the majority of Sunderland’s most recent matches, and all three would be expected to lead the fightback in the third tier. Joel Asoro and Josh Maja would almost certainly receive more game time than they have been afforded this season, while a fully-fit Duncan Watmore would be a potent asset in either League One or the Championship.

Coleman freely admits he has had to throw some of his youngsters in at the deep end this season, but their performances have provided some of the few bright spots during an otherwise horrendous campaign.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how some of them have taken to the challenge,” he said. “With young players, you’ve got to be careful because it can be too much for them and it takes them a while to get over that initial shock of the gap to where they’ve been and what they’ve just experienced.

“Some of them take to it, do well and get more experience, maybe a new contract, which can create other problems if they start thinking they’re something they’re not. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got that under control.

“But if you’re a young player like our boys who’ve had a taste of it, they must be thinking whichever way they land, they’ve got a chance here. They’re already playing at a club, and there’s the chance of more first-team experience, that’s got to be a carrot for them.

“Although they’ve burst on the scene with us and done quite well, there’s no guarantee for them that if they go elsewhere they will get first-team football.

“After ten, 15, 20 games it would be hard for them to go to another club, disappear into the system and not play first-team football, they will go backwards. They need to be here, knocking on the door and getting more and more experience to make them better and better.”

As their position in the league table proves, Sunderland are a club with deep-rooted problems. But if Coleman was a young player looking for somewhere develop, he remains adamant he would jump at the opportunity of a spell at the Stadium of Light.

“As a young boy myself, I would have jumped at the chance to come here because of the size of the club and the fan-base,” he said. “There’s an opportunity to perform in front of that. That still has to be an attraction, I’d like to think so, anyway.

“It’s not for everybody, you need broad shoulders to play here, but the carrot of being part of something this big definitely overshadows the negativity of the pressure and criticism which comes if you get it wrong. Get it right here, good things will happen to you.”