WHEN he sat down during lockdown to assess his priorities for improving Sunderland, it did not take Phil Parkinson long to identify the club’s youth set-up as a major weakness.

The results were staring him in the face. Last season, Sunderland did not win a single competitive fixture at either Under-18 or Under-23 level. Despite spending around £4m-a-year to sustain a category one academy, the Black Cats were not seeing the benefits in terms of youngsters progressing into the first team. Instead, Sunderland’s youth players were either of insufficient quality to succeed in League One or were being cherrypicked by bigger clubs before they were ready to step up to senior level.

Something had to change. Paul Reid left his role as academy manager. Parkinson gave the green light for a recruitment drive at Under-23 level with Sunderland’s scouting team actively pursuing players that had been discarded elsewhere. And as he prepared for a new season with his first team, the Black Cats boss pledged to create a clearer pathway from the youth set-up to the senior ranks.

It is early days, but the signs are already promising. Despite a permanent successor to Reid still not being in place, Sunderland’s Under-23s won four of their five matches in October, defeating Newcastle, Sheffield United, Fulham and Aston Villa, and started November with a 2-1 win over Wolves.

The club’s Under-18s drew their most recent game with Blackburn, and were only beaten by the odd goal in five when they met Liverpool last month. And perhaps most significantly, when Parkinson wanted to shuffle his pack and rest a number of his established first teamers for Tuesday’s Papa John’s Trophy with Fleetwood Town, he was able to turn to the Under-23s squad and had six players a Sunderland debut.

Anthony Patterson, Ollie Younger and Josh Hawkes started at Highbury Stadium, with Cieran Dunne, Vinnie Steels and Sam Wilding coming off the bench. All six performed creditably despite Sunderland suffering a 2-1 defeat; all six prove Parkinson’s attempts to overhaul the youth system are working.

“The plan over lockdown, when we were talking about what we wanted to do with the recruitment, was to strengthen up that Under-23 team and try to get a pool of players who could transition into the first-team squad,” said the Sunderland boss.

“Last year, the quality level in the Under-23s wasn’t good enough. We want the club to be as one, and those Under-23 players to feel they have a chance, but the only way you can do that is by getting better quality players, which we’ve started to get.

“There’s room for more improvements, but the results from the Under-23s have shown we’re on the right track. They’ve been excellent – they beat Wolves and Villa, and then here (at Fleetwood), the lads stepped in and showed they can make that transition.”

While Tuesday’s six debutants are unlikely to see much league action this season, there is a batch of young players above them who have been knocking on the door of the first team for a while now.

Jack Diamond, Dan Neil and Elliot Embleton all started against Fleetwood, and while none of the trio have kicked off a League One game this season, it might not be long before they get their chance.

Diamond is a viable rival to Luke O’Nien at right wing-back, and could also play further upfield. Neil has shown enough in his EFL Trophy performances this season to suggest he is capable of pushing the likes of Josh Scowen and Chris Maguire for a starting spot.

Embleton, who was threatening to break into the first team under Jack Ross before a series of injury problems stopped him in his tracks, is perhaps the likeliest to step up, indeed it would not be too much of a surprise were he to feature in tomorrow’s home game with MK Dons after playing all 90 minutes on Tuesday.

“Elliot’s been out a hell of a long time, and you can’t hide away from that,” said Parkinson, who watched the midfielder hit the post and deliver crosses that led to the woodwork being struck on two more occasions on Tuesday night. “I can’t remember the last time he completed 90 minutes (before Tuesday). It was a long time ago, but he’s a terrific talent.”