WHEN Bali Mumba replaced John O’Shea in the closing stages of Sunderland’s final game as a Championship club in 2018, five months before his 17th birthday and a matter of weeks before completing his GCSEs, his emergence was heralded as a glimpse of a new dawn.

Yes, the Black Cats were crashing into the third tier for only the second time in their history. But new owners were arriving, a new manager was on his way, and while relegation would hurt, it would give the likes of Mumba an opportunity to prove themselves in the first team. Sunderland’s academy, boasting category one status despite the first-team’s struggles, would have a chance to flourish and come to the fore.

Fast forward two years, and it is safe to say things have not gone to plan for either Mumba or Sunderland’s youth system in general. If, as looks likely, Mumba leaves Wearside to join Norwich City in the next few weeks, it will feel like a wasted opportunity. Sadly, however, it will not be the first.

Mumba has only made nine more senior appearances since he was handed the captain’s armband by O’Shea. There are explanations for his failure to hold down a place in the first-team squad, first under Jack Ross and more recently under Phil Parkinson, not least the ongoing uncertainty over his optimal role. But the fact that Norwich are ready to pay up to £750,000 to sign him says much about the bigger picture when it comes to youth development at Sunderland.

For all that results at junior levels might be concerning, the Black Cats are producing young players. The problem is that they are not appearing in the first team and are leaving for next to nothing before their potential is realised.

For Mumba in a few weeks’ time, read Sam Greenwood, Joe Hugill, Logan Pye, Luca Stephenson, Luke Hewitson, Morten Spencer and Jacob Young in the last few years. Depending on what else happens this summer, you might also be add to Elliot Embleton and Ethan Robson to the list.

Greenwood went to Arsenal for a pittance in 2018, and was recently linked with Juventus and AC Milan. Hugill, a 16-year-old striker, joined Manchester United last month. Pye beat him through the exit door, joining Manchester United in January.

Sunderland’s inability to hold on to their brightest young talents is partly a reflection of a systemic problem within English football’s academy set-up. Despite having nurtured the likes of Mumba and Greenwood for more than half-a-decade, Sunderland are powerless to prevent the biggest clubs in the land cherry-picking their talent. If you are an Arsenal or Manchester United, it is hardly a gamble to throw a six-figure sum at a youngster who could go on to be worth 30 times that amount.

But there is still a nagging sense that Sunderland should be doing more to promote their best young players, and that the current board should be holding firm with the likes of Mumba rather than looking to cash in. It costs a lot of money to run a category one academy, as Charlie Methven was fond of highlighting, but it will never be a worthwhile investment if the benefits are not felt in the first team.

The fear is that if the sums do not add up, a decision to downgrade the academy will follow. Club officials insist that is not the case, but with every exit, every Mumba that is lost, their arguments become less convincing.