DESPITE spending the last two seasons in League One, Sunderland have been boosted to learn that their academy has been awarded elite status for the next three years at least.

The Black Cats’ academy – which has produced the likes of England duo Jordan Pickford and Jordan Henderson - has had it confirmed that its Category One status has been renewed after a Premier League audit.

That was one of the key objectives set by Sunderland’s owner Stewart Donald when he bought the club in 2018 and it has been achieved despite his efforts to sell up.

Having been awarded the top status, Sunderland can compete in the highest level of youth and Under-23 competitions, including Premier League 2, and will receive the maximum funding level from the FA and Premier League. It will also be able to recruit players from further afield, reducing the risk of losing players too.

An audit takes place every three years and clubs can be ranked between one and four. Category One clubs must highlight they are providing the best coaching, facilities, and strategic development for their rising talents.

Sunderland – whose academy costs around £4m-a-year to run - are understood to have been told in their report that the club has a 'well-developed and structured vision, mission, objectives, and strategy'.

Sunderland was not awarded Category One status initially after the last audit and they were told extra work was required for them to step up.

Academy manager Paul Reid said: "The awarding of Category One status is testament to the professionalism, work ethic and dedication of everyone involved in our academy operation.

"We have a fantastic team of people here, who work tirelessly on behalf of the club and so to be recognised among the very best youth academies in the country is something we are all rightly very proud of.

"I would like to personally thank them for their diligence during the audit process and their commitment to upholding the principles and values of our Academy in everything they do."

Sunderland's academy has performed well in the younger age groups up to Under-16s, but the lack of investment in players has taken its toll at Under-18 and Under-23 levels.

He said: "We have a great framework in place, giving us solid foundations on which to continue to develop the academy. Being awarded Category One is a great achievement, but we know there is still much work to be done.

"We've brought in new staff to complement our existing team and are in the process of revamping our recruitment department, with the aim of expanding our reach and targeted talent pool and in turn, making the academy stronger.

“The under nine-to-16 age groups are excelling, which is really pleasing to see. We know there are challenges at present with the under 18 and under 23 age groups.

“The task at these age groups is to compete against the very best in the country on what is an uneven playing field. The pleasing aspect of this result is that the elements within our control have been independently graded as elite and we have given ourselves the very best chance of addressing this specific test.

“As a group we are embracing these challenges and finding the best way forward for our players and the academy as a whole.”