JOSH MAJA has been identified as a “priority” when Sunderland address the players whose contracts are expiring next summer, after emerging as a crucial figure until at least the New Year.

Manager Jack Ross has already had initial discussions with the club’s hierarchy to discuss those whose deals will run out at the end of this season following the closure of the loan and transfer windows last month.

And Maja’s good form in the first six weeks of the campaign in League One have caught the eye of many clubs, so Sunderland know they risk losing him for a relatively small compensation fee if the situation is not addressed.

Maja has hit the net five times already since taking his chance when Ross had little alternative to lead the line because summer recruit Charlie Wyke arrived from Bradford with a knee injury, which has since returned and has ruled him out until New Year.

Ross said: “He’s one of those they’re very keen to ensure he commits his future to the club. We want him to do that.

“We’re probably getting very close to the stage where we’ll start that conversation properly and it’s blatantly obvious why we would want to do that because he’s an asset to us on the playing side and financially he will be an asset because he’s attractive to other clubs.

“We would like to do that because it’s encouraging having four players from the academy in the line-up - I think that’s a good number and while we’re not doing it every week it justifies the work we do here. We’d like to keep those players for as long as we can.”

Maja and captain George Honeyman are the two main men who Sunderland will want to tie to fresh terms sooner rather than later, even if the club’s hands are tied with what they can offer because of a wage bill that still stands at £11m.

Adam Matthews, Robbin Ruiter, Reece James, Lynden Gooch and Max Stryjek are the other first team squad members whose contracts will run out next summer.

But it is Maja, who will command a compensation fee if he did leave because he is under the age of 24, who has quite rightly deserved the praise in the last six weeks for the way he has attacked life in League One.

A lot of pressure has rested on his teenage shoulders and that will only increase now given that Wyke is sidelined and there are no other out-and-out strikers available, so he should have a big part to play until Christmas at least if he can maintain his standards.

Ross, speaking ahead of today's visit of Rochdale, thinks he can cope. He said: “I think in terms of temperament, yes. I think he’s shown already he can shoulder the responsibility. His mindset is good and I think he has a belief in his abilities.

“As the season progresses we’re getting past the stage where he’s new to the league but also he’s a new player to some of the opposition and they’re starting to learn more about him. We need to encourage him to mix his game up as well.

“These are things we’re working hard on in terms of the analysis we do - because he has certain attributes that are good but if teams become used to them you have to strengthen your hand with other parts of the game as well. We’ll keep working on them.

“The good thing is he takes it in. Even in this short period of time he’s going to cram a lot in and that’s probably going to stand him in good stead for the rest of his career – hopefully here.”

Promising forwards tend to have an experienced squad member to look up to but given Sunderland’s period of transition over the summer he has already had adapt to being the main man.

Ross said: “I think sometimes that can be overlooked. He’s not playing regularly in the easiest of circumstances. You could maybe compare that with if he’d been asked to play in the Championship probably with more proven strikers around him.

“Although he’s in League One he’s still playing against strong, experienced central defenders by and large on his own because although Chris (Maguire) has played close to him at times, his natural position is to be in and around strikers so he doesn’t have that experience, physique and stature around him and hasn’t done for most of the season.

“We work hard with Josh on an individual basis. He learns within the group at times in terms of the communication we have with them directly and the analysis of his game and the things he can do better.

“Most of the players watch their own individual clips and he wants to improve bits of his game so it’s massive for me at the moment. The thing about his game that’s so good is that his feet are so good.

“Because he’s not electric quick, he’s sometimes got a reluctance to stretch teams and sometimes that can be a bit predictable so sometimes we’re asking him to mix his game up to get the ball into areas that heighten his assets.

“It maybe puts more onus on you as a coach because he doesn’t have that coaching on the pitch from an experienced striker but he’s still got a lot of good players, a lot of experienced players who can pass information onto him. I don’t always know it because I’m not privy to every conversation he has.”