WITH Dan Neil and Elliot Embleton both now tied down to long-term contracts, Lee Johnson is delighted that Sunderland’s ‘succession planning’ is bearing fruit and helping secure the club’s future.

Neil followed Embleton’s lead by signing a new four-year contract on Thursday, with the current ownership group’s strategic thinking standing in marked contrast to the rather more haphazard approach adopted by the previous regime.

Under the stewardship of Stewart Donald, Sunderland watched a number of their most talented youngsters leave as their contracts expired. The hurried sale of Josh Maja is perhaps the most obvious example of the Black Cats’ planning going awry, but there were plenty of other instances of homegrown academy players being cherry-picked by rival clubs.

Kyril Louis-Dreyfus wants to end the exodus away from the Academy of Light, and working alongside Johnson and sporting director Kristjaan Speakman, Sunderland’s current owner has altered the club’s approach to dealing with its emerging assets.

“It’s about having a succession plan,” said Johnson, ahead of this afternoon’s game at Rotherham. “We have clarity about that – starting at the top and working its way down the chain.

“I’m in constant communication with Kristjaan and Kyril. We speak on a regular basis about all of the players. We haven’t quite nailed it yet because I’ve always said this is a three to five-year project. You’ll really know you’ve cracked it when you’re doing your summer business in January and your January business three or four weeks before the start of the window.

“But we’re getting there, and there is a very clearly-defined plan in place. There is a succession plan on the back of that, and we’re making sure that the squad has a nice balance of youth, experience, assets, players that can produce in their prime now and emerging players that are just moving into their prime. If you’ve got that, you can guarantee a competitive future.”

Neil’s willingness to commit his long-term future to his hometown club is especially pleasing, with the 19-year-old having been linked with a number of clubs including Premier League West Ham in recent weeks.

The South Shields-born midfielder has established himself as a key component of Sunderland’s first-choice line-up this season, with Johnson comparing his playing style to that of a ‘young Paul Gascoigne’.

“He’s technically a very good player,” said the Black Cats boss. “You see the way he manipulates the ball, and I think he’s added another dimension to his game, to be able to drop and drive, and receive the ball and commit players.

“He’s got that lovely dribbling technique – a little bit like a young Paul Gascoigne almost in the way he pops and drags it at the same time. As a defender, it’s very difficult to commit because the minute you do, he’s got the ability to skip by you.

“I do expect to see a couple of slalom-type goals from him this season. At QPR on Wednesday, it was a lovely little gliding run, and then he just didn’t quite get the finish off. We’re very pleased and he’s very pleased. The hard work starts now, but we look forward to moving on with him in our future.”