JACK ROSS spent most of the summer searching for a new striker. He signed Charlie Wyke and Jerome Sinclair, and missed out on Lyle Taylor and James Wilson when he thought he had deals in place to bring them to the Stadium of Light. As the Football League loan window closed at the end of last month, he was still bemoaning his failure to further strengthen his attacking ranks.

The Sunderland boss was clearly worried about a lack of options in the final third, but on the evidence of the opening seven weeks of the season, he should not have been concerned. For all the fretting and soul-searching, the best striker in League One might well have been sitting alongside him in the dressing room all along.

Josh Maja’s first-half double in Saturday’s 4-1 win over Rochdale means he has scored seven goals in his nine league outings this season. He sits alongside Peterborough United’s Matt Godden at the top of the League One scoring charts, and his feats are all the more remarkable given his lack of senior experience prior to the start of the current campaign.

Still a teenager, Lewisham-born Maja did not make his first league appearance until last December. It was a goalscoring debut, with the youngster firing in the winner against Fulham, but he was still afforded just six Championship starts as the Black Cats tumbled into the third tier under Chris Coleman.

Unlike his fellow fledgling, Joel Asoro, Maja opted to remain on Wearside in the wake of relegation, but Ross remained understandably reluctant to pile too much pressure on his youthful shoulders given his lack of experience in leading the line.

Not anymore. A natural finisher with a knack of finding space in a packed 18-yard box, Maja is rapidly emerging as the most important element of Sunderland’s promotion push. Might such an elevated position become too much for him? Not according to his manager, who has quickly abandoned any reservations he might have had when he first arrived on Wearside.

“He’s stepped up every time we’ve needed him, and that’s something you can’t predict as a manager,” said Ross, who watched his side climb to third position in the table as they returned to winning ways to end a run of three matches without a victory. “You don’t know with any certainty how a young player will respond to that.

“It goes back to that question when you’re asked about players coming through your academy and who’s the next big thing. It’s so difficult to predict because until they’re thrown in to the first-team environment, with the pressures that brings, you don’t know how they’ll react.

“I know he’s had a taste of it prior to this season, but this season is really the first time he’s had to face it week in, week out and he should take an enormous amount of pride and confidence out of how he’s responded to that. He’s shown, ‘I can deal with that. I’m a first-team footballer, and I can deal with the pressures of first-team football at a club of this size’.

“I have no doubts he’ll continue to produce what he’s doing, and I think he’ll get better. I think the team will get better, and I think he’ll get better too.”

Maja’s two goals at the weekend showcased different aspects of his game, with the first seeing him lose his marker completely as he headed home Chris Maguire’s left-wing cross and the second seeing him shuffle the ball out of his feet before drilling a fierce low finish past Rochdale goalkeeper Joshua Lillis.

Had Wyke been fit, he might well have been on the substitutes’ bench, but with Sunderland’s £1m summer signing facing a three-month lay-off, he will get plenty of chances to impress before the end of the year.

His partnership with Maguire is also here to stay, with the pair clearly complementing each other, particularly when their side have control of the game. Maguire was superb against Rochdale, pulling defenders here, there and everywhere as he drifted from one side of the pitch to the other and deftly creating pockets of space for Maja to exploit.

The pair do not quite have a conventional attacking partnership in the mould of a Quinn and Phillips, but their attributes blend nicely and they both seem to play better as part of an attacking two.

“We looked at how we’ve been best this season, and I definitely think Josh is at his best when he has someone up front and around him,” said Ross. “The type of player Chris is suits him best in that way.

“What we have to keep working on, and we did during the week, is that they don’t both come too deep at the same time. They both have a tendency to want the ball because they’re good footballers.

“It’s just that encouragement for them to stretch the game at times, and at least one of them to do that. It doesn’t always come naturally to either of them, but when they do it, it stretches the game and we have more room to play in.”

Sunderland look a cut above the vast majority of their League One rivals when they are playing on the front foot, and Ross’ side were effectively in cruise control from the moment Maja broke the deadlock in the 37th minute.

Things might have been different had Aaron Wilbraham found the target when the Black Cats defence parted alarmingly midway through the first half, but four minutes after Maja scored, the hosts were pretty much home and hosed as Lynden Gooch scored from the spot.

The American earned the penalty himself, changing pace adeptly on the right-hand side of the area to draw a foul from Oliver Rathbone.

Maja claimed his second goal of the afternoon on the stroke of half-time, drilling home after left wing-back Denver Hume teed him up in the box, and Gooch also claimed a brace as he cut inside from the right-hand side to fire into the bottom corner midway through the second half.

“It’s about matching people in this league,” said Tom Flanagan, who impressed as part of a remodelled backline that saw Ross switch to fielding three centre-halves. “If we do that, then our quality will show.

“In the first 15 minutes, we didn’t concede, which was great. You do find yourself clock-watching a bit because of how things have gone so far, it’s impossible not to, but having got through that stage, we were able to show our quality.

“That’s what we’ve said all week – it’s all well and good having the talented players, but if we don’t match the work rate, we won’t match teams.”