PHIL PARKINSON has challenged Benji Kimpioka to use this evening’s Trophy game with Leicester City Under-21s to fire himself into contention for a starting spot in League One.

Parkinson will ring the changes as Sunderland return to EFL Trophy action, with fit-again defensive duo Alim Ozturk and Laurens de Bock set to join midfielder Dylan McGeouch in the starting line-up.

Kimpioka will get the nod up front, and will make his first senior start of the season after brief substitute cameos against Tranmere Rovers and Shrewsbury Town.

The 19-year-old scored in last season’s Checkatrade Trophy win over Carlisle United and made three further appearances in the competition, but was unable to force his way into Jack Ross’ plans for Sunderland’s league games.

With Charlie Wyke currently sidelined, and neither Will Grigg nor Marc McNulty proving particularly effective in front of goal, there is an opportunity for Kimpioka to thrust himself into the first-team picture, and having been impressed with the teenager’s efforts in training, Parkinson is hoping he takes his chance.

“I’ve only seen Benji for a limited time because we haven’t trained a great deal, but I watched him play some of the (Under-23s) game against Newcastle the other week,” said the Sunderland boss. “He’s powerful, he’s direct, he’s got the ability to go past people and he’s an exciting player.

“I’ve been speaking to him in training about taking that excitement into really affecting a game. We went him to get shots on goal, and even in the small-sided games in training, we’ve been talking him to about making sure that if he’s doing a trick, it’s a stepover then a shot.

“We want to make sure we’ve got that end product from him, and as a couple of weeks have gone by, the more we can see he’s doing that. For me, he deserves an opportunity with the appetite he’s been showing in training. I’m sure he’s relishing getting the chance.”

Kimpioka’s performance this evening could also have a bearing on his longer-term prospects, with the Sunderland hierarchy pondering their next move in the current stand-off over the youngster’s contractual position.

Kimpioka is due to become a free agent at the end of the current campaign, but talks over a new deal stalled earlier this year, with the striker’s representative, Martin Kettle, having inflamed the situation in September by suggesting his client would only be signing a new contract if his prospects of playing regular senior football improved.

“With all the contracts, but with Benji in particular, the board and the chairman wanted me to come in and have a look at everybody,” said Parkinson. “Then the plan is to sit back down at a later date and say, ‘This is what I feel we should do’.

“What I want to see from Benji is a performance that is a real bonus for us, and where we’re able to say, ‘Wow, he’s now a real contender’. I’m not going to put pressure on him because he’s young, but I want him to relish the opportunity and show us that he’s another player who can make things happen for us.”

In time, Sunderland will hope Kimpioka has the same impact as Josh Maja, who scored 15 goals in the first half of last season before leaving to join Bordeaux.

Since Maja’s departure, Denver Hume and Elliot Embleton have both stepped up from the academy ranks to feature in the first team, but there are concerns that the production line is slowing, with Sunderland’s results at junior level this season having been extremely poor.

The club’s Under-23s sit at the bottom of the Premier League 2 Division 2 table, having picked up just one point from their ten matches, while the Under-18s are at the foot of the Premier League Under-18s table after failing to claim a single point from their opening nine games.

Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven have opted to retain Sunderland’s tier-one academy status despite the club’s demotion to League One, but Parkinson insists results against the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool are a crude measure of the effectiveness of the academy. Instead, he would rather focus his attention on players’ development, with loans forming a key part of the overall picture.

“You have to accept that as a top-tier academy, we are competing against clubs with a lot of resources, who are spending a lot of money on young players,” he said. “We’ve probably had to sell a couple of our younger ones along the way, and when it comes to the Under-23s, we’ve got players out on loan.

“We had a chat with Kevin Ball about it the other day, and in some ways, it would be easier to say, ‘We need to win at that level, let’s keep those players back’. But what we need is for those players to develop, and myself and Kevin are singing from the same hymn sheet.

“If results have to take a backwards step at that level, but we are developing players like Jack Diamond at Harrogate, then that’s the right way to go. What an opportunity for Jack to be playing at Conference level, the next step for him is, ‘Can he go into league football?’

“Listen, Sunderland Football Club have got to want to win all the time, but at academy level, there is a different element where we’ve got to look to develop players and test them at the highest possible level, and see whether they’re going to be good enough for the first team here. The Under-23s is a good standard, but I like to see them in men’s football too.”

Sunderland (possible, 4-2-3-1): J McLaughlin; Mumba, Ozturk, Flanagan, de Bock; Leadbitter, McGeouch; Connelly, Maguire, Watmore; Kimpioka.