LAST week, as Jack Ross prepared to preview Sunderland’s FA Cup tie at Walsall, he was accompanied into the press room by someone who wanted to take his place.

With Ross watching on from the side of the room, Bali Mumba fielded a couple of questions in front of the TV cameras. ‘What kind of job do you think your manager is doing,’ he was asked. ‘He’s doing okay,’ said Mumba, with a twinkle in his eye. ‘But I can think of a young midfielder he should maybe be picking a bit more’. Clearly, this is not your average 17-year-old.

Of all the rough diamonds to have emerged during Sunderland’s resurrection under Ross, Mumba is surely the most exciting. He was still 16 when he made his first senior start against Charlton on the opening day of the season, indeed he only turned 17 at the start of October, by which point he had made another two League One appearances.

Both on and off the pitch, he displays a maturity beyond his years, marking him out as something potentially very special. Understandably, Ross wants to take things slowly with him, and while less clued-up youngsters might have reacted badly to being dropped back down to the Under-23s after bursting on to the senior scene at the start of the season, Mumba is sensible enough to see the bigger picture.

Yes, he wants to become a fixture in Sunderland’s first team. But his career remains in its infancy and, at this stage of his development, any taste of senior action is to be cherished.

“I understand it from the manager’s point of view, said Mumba, who was Sunderland’s best player in the second half of Tuesday’s Checkatrade Trophy win over Notts County despite playing in the relatively unfamiliar position of right wing-back. “He's got a job to do, which is to get the first team promoted.

“I understand what he does, but he also has to manage my game-time. He always tells me I'm quite young and I've got a lot of time. I understand from that point of view, but while I’m on the bench (for the first team) I still need game-time, that's why he puts me in the Under-23s, to get experience.

“That's still a high level for me, being 17, it's still quite a challenge for me with the physicality. I understand what he says and I respect that.

“I understand why I’m on and off, but it’s just the start for me really. I know that as we go on, come the end of the season, my time will come, more minutes will be given to me.”

Ross must be thrilled at such a level-headed outlook, and as the season progresses, there is every chance that Mumba will begin to play a more prominent role.

His versatility is a major asset – he looked perfectly at home as a wing-back on Tuesday, despite having played the vast majority of his career in central midfield – and as Sunderland continue to challenge on three different fronts, Ross needs a batch of players he can rely on in the cup competitions.

Mumba falls into that category, and that is why a loan move in January currently looks unlikely, with Sunderland through to the last-16 of the Checkatrade Trophy and hoping to set up a trip to Bolton Wanderers in the third round of the FA Cup. Mumba might benefit from spending time in the lower leagues, but for the moment, he is far too important where he is.

“Right now, I think I’m at a good spot, a good place, getting minutes for the Under-23s and coming up for the first team,” he said. “For my age, it’s a good thing to be doing, getting experience playing against bigger physical lads.

“Loan talks, I haven’t heard much yet, me and the gaffer will try and discuss it but right now I’m in a good space. I think what I’m doing is enough, but I want to do more. We’ll soon have that conversation and see what we want to do about loans.”

For now though, Mumba will return to training with Sunderland’s first team, where despite his tender age, he has already established himself as a popular part of the group.

“The craic with the lads is great,” he said. “The togetherness, we’re pushing each other, even us on the bench, we’re pushing those who are starting to maintain that high standard.

“Even though we’re not in the starting XI, we’re pushing them to work hard and keep their standards high and stay in that starting XI. We all love Sunderland, and want the club to be back where they belong, that’s the main thing.”

And with Tuesday’s win having taken the Black Cats into Friday’s Checkatrade Trophy last-16 draw, the prize of an appearance at Wembley is starting to loom large.

“It's crazy,” said Mumba. “I’ve watched all the games at Wembley, especially cup finals, always thinking, 'Just one day - when can it come?' To have that opportunity right now is a blessing for me. I'm really excited. That's why I want the team to keep pushing, keep working hard until we get there. That would be a dream.”