LUKE O’NIEN expects Sunderland’s youngsters to make a big impact this season, and is tipping Jack Diamond and Dan Neil to play significant roles in the club’s promotion push.

Diamond spent last season on loan at Harrogate Town, helping the North Yorkshire club win promotion to the Football League via the National League play-offs. Harrogate tried to re-sign the 20-year-old earlier this summer, but Phil Parkinson rejected their advances, instead opting to promote Diamond to Sunderland’s first-team squad.

Neil, an 18-year-old midfielder, has also been promoted to the Black Cats’ senior squad, and the teenager has caught the eye in the club’s last two friendlies, setting up a goal against Carlisle United before laying on Will Grigg’s winner in Saturday’s game with Harrogate with an inch-perfect through ball.

Parkinson’s refusal to restore Aiden McGeady to Sunderland’s first-team set-up stems, in part, from his desire to maximise the opportunities afforded to Diamond and Neil this season, and having played alongside the pair throughout pre-season, O’Nien is confident they are ready to take the step up in responsibility in their stride.

“Dan has been exceptional right throughout pre-season,” said O’Nien, who signed a contract extension to remain at Sunderland at the start of the summer. “Every day in training, he’s like a dancer with those magic feet. He’s creating and scoring goals in training all the time.

“There are a few of the youngsters who have been impressing. Jack Diamond has come back and done really well, so we have that healthy competition.

“The gaffer doesn’t know his team yet, so everyone has one more week of training to be at their absolute max and make sure they get that shirt.”

Having reaffirmed their commitment to running a category one academy, the Sunderland hierarchy will be keen to see the establishment of a clear pathway from the junior ranks to the first team.

Elliot Embleton should also be an important performer this season – the youngster is due to return to full training this week after picking up a knock against Gateshead – while Brandon Taylor and Morgan Feeney will also hope to get opportunities in the Sunderland defence.