COME the end of the season, there will not be too many Sunderland players looking back on the last month or so with any fondness. As well as having to deal with a major coronavirus outbreak that forced the postponement of three matches and led to the closure of the Academy of Light training ground for ten days, the Black Cats have also endured a mixed run of results that have hampered their attempts to clamber back into the top six. Come May, this might turn out to have been the period that prevented Sunderland winning promotion.

For Jack Diamond, however, the last six weeks have been rather more positive. Repeatedly restricted to substitute duty under Phil Parkinson, the 21-year-old has rapidly evolved into a first-team regular under Lee Johnson. Having stepped out the shadows, the Gateshead-born midfielder increasingly looks like Sunderland’s most important attacking threat.

That wasn’t the case in the first three months of the campaign, with Parkinson’s refusal to play Diamond in the league hard to fathom. The former Sunderland boss said all the right things when it came to giving youngsters a chance in the first team, and clearly rated Diamond given his refusal to send him out on another loan this summer. Yet, when it came to actually trusting the academy product in League One, a tally of two substitute appearances in 15 matches under Parkinson says everything about the ex-Black Cats boss’ failure to transform his words into action.

Johnson might have gone down the same road had it not been for a Papa John’s Trophy game at Oldham Athletic in his first week in charge. Diamond had been a substitute in Johnson’s introductory league game against Wigan, but he started at Boundary Park three days later and was the Man of the Match as Sunderland came from a goal behind to claim a 2-1 victory.

Four days after that, and Diamond was excelling again, scoring his first League One goal as Sunderland ran riot at Lincoln. From nowhere, the youngster was one of Johnson’s go-to men, and while both parties will admit there is still plenty of room for improvement, the fact Diamond is now playing for a manager who both believes in him and is willing to turn that belief into a place in the team is of huge psychological importance.

“It’s been refreshing,” said Diamond, whose progression was clearly aided by last season’s successful loan spell at Harrogate Town. “It’s been nice to see that someone has some faith in me.

“It’s kind of up to me to repay him (Johnson) now. He’s put me out there and put his trust in me, so it’s been good. I’ve got a lot of confidence from it, so I’ve just got to keep going now really.”

Johnson clearly regards Diamond as something of a rough diamond, with the youngster’s versatility an obvious asset. Parkinson appeared to be moulding him as a wing-back, but Johnson sees his future much higher up the field, as an attacking wide player.

Sunderland’s head coach developed a good record for nurturing young talent at Bristol City, and wants Diamond to deliver some of the energy and attacking drive that was repeatedly lacking under Parkinson.

“I look for game impact with a young player,” said Johnson, in the wake of Diamond’s eye-catching first-half display at Lincoln. “If I see Jack making technical or tactical mistakes, it’s my job to work with him. If it’s an attitude error, then trust me, I’m coming down on him like a ton of bricks.

“All I can do is encourage young players like that, and hope they gain the belief and the confidence to flourish and bring their best to the party.”

Player development is important, but results are also vital, with Sunderland heading into tomorrow’s home game with Shrewsbury Town three points adrift of the play-off positions in the wake of Tuesday’s disappointing defeat to Plymouth Argyle.

“We’ve got to bounce back after the defeat on Tuesday,” said Diamond, in an interview with Sunderland's official website. “Every game is important at this stage of the season – we want to get as many points as we can and go on a good run."