PHIL PARKINSON will use Sunderland’s EFL Trophy game against Aston Villa Under-21s this evening to ensure his young players are ready for action should they be called upon when the League One season starts on Saturday.

The Black Cats kick off their Trophy campaign against Villa’s development team at the Stadium of Light, and while Parkinson will include a smattering of senior players in his line-up, the majority of his starting line-up will be comprised of Sunderland’s youngsters.

Morgan Feeney and Dan Neil will start after being unused substitutes in Saturday’s Carabao Cup defeat to Hull City, while Jack Diamond, Jake Hackett and Brandon Taylor are also set to be involved.

The new League One salary cap regulations have increased the importance of bringing through Under-21s who are capable of stepping up to the first team, and with Sunderland having confirmed their commitment to continue pumping around £4m-a-year into their category one academy, Parkinson is determined to create a clearer pathway from the youth ranks to the first team.

“The young players need a game, along with the lads who didn’t play (against Hull),” said Parkinson. “That’s really important. I think at this stage of the season, it’s important to get everybody up to speed. We want to give the youngsters an opportunity in that game. There’ll be some senior players in there, but it’ll be an opportunity for the young players to show what they can do.

“We are trying this season to build an Under-23 team and have some integration between the younger players in the first-team squad and that Under-23 team, and treat it more as a reserve team.

“Last year, it was very difficult for the Under-23s with the quality in that team and the results they got, and I didn’t feel there were enough players in there who were ready to step up and make a claim.”

Parkinson is hoping to hand a debut to recent signing Arbernit Xhemajli this evening, although Sunderland have been waiting for the defender’s international clearance to come through from the Swiss FA. Xhermajli joined from Neuchatel Xamax last week for a six-figure sum.

“We’re waiting for international clearance, which hopefully will come through because he needs to play,” said Parkinson. “We’re crossing our fingers, but we’re at the mercy of the Swiss FA.”