THESE remain early days in the development of the crop of youngsters that arrived at Sunderland this summer, but as winter draws in, so the signs are becoming increasingly positive.

The recruitment staff have done their bit in terms of identifying and signing a group of talented rough diamonds – now, Tony Mowbray and the rest of his coaching staff are working their magic by polishing them up into the finished product.

At this juncture, it is worth reflecting on how last season’s patience is paying off. Pierre Ekwah didn’t start a game during his first two months as a Sunderland player. Now, thanks to Mowbray’s refusal to rush his French recruit, the 21-year-old is a mainstay of the Black Cats’ midfield.

Trai Hume was barely making the squad during Mowbray’s first three months in charge; the boss saw something in the defender though, and now he is one of the first names on the team sheet. Injury forced Mowbray’s hand when it came to Niall Huggins, but his refusal to give up on the 22-year-old has nevertheless been rewarded. On Saturday, Huggins was the best player on the field as Sunderland beat Birmingham.

So, Mowbray’s methods work. Start slowly with youngsters acclimatizing to life in a new country and league. Gradually introduce them from the substitutes’ bench, perhaps throwing in the occasional appearance for the Under-21s. Then, when they are showing signs that they are ready, start them in the first team. After that, stand back and admire what you now have at your disposal.

Nazariy Rusyn has taken time to adapt to leaving Ukraine, but on Saturday, as he bulldozed his way through the Birmingham defence, hitting the post with an early effort and setting up Jobe Bellingham’s opening goal, the summer signing looked like a striker increasingly at home in the Championship.


Adil Aouchiche, who came off the bench to score Sunderland’s third goal, is yet to make his first senior start in England, but with every successful substitute appearance, his confidence appears to grow. Once the international break is over, a maiden start for the 21-year-old cannot be too far away. Eliezer Mayenda is at a much more formative stage of his development, largely because of the hamstring injury he picked up in his first training session after moving to Wearside, but his 17-minute cameo from the bench at the weekend was hugely exciting. Mowbray certainly has something to work with there.

Throw in Nectar Triantis and Jenson Seelt, who were forced into action at the weekend because of a combination of suspension and injury, and who performed admirably after a somewhat shaky start, and Mason Burstow and Luis Hemir, who remain works in progress, but who have both shown signs of considerable raw ability, and you have a batch of summer additions who are bubbling away nicely. Their progress over the next few months will have to be carefully managed, but in Mowbray, Sunderland boast a tutor who has already proved he is more than up to the task.

“We hope it’s an exciting group,” said the Black Cats boss. “They’re not necessarily all ready, but they’re all good players. That’s what this club does now – they bring in young footballers and expect us to polish them up, give them some confidence and allow them to play.

“We like all of them. We’re excited by these players, but my ultimate call always has to be whether they’re ready to start in front of this or that specific player. If the answer is no, then it’s only because we’re trying to win football matches in front of 40,000 supporters. They want to see Sunderland win, not give a load of debuts to young footballers.

“There’s a fine balance, and that’s what I’m trying to get right. Sometimes, people will see one of these young lads and think, ‘Wow, what a good player he looks’, but then when I see him in training every day, he looks like a young player who’s not quite ready. That’s where you have to give them time to grow.”

The vibrancy of youth was certainly evident in the opening 20 minutes of Saturday’s game as Sunderland threatened to overwhelm their opponents. Bellingham, playing against his former side, was at the heart of the home side’s attacking, opening the scoring with a volleyed finish before becoming the second Sunderland player to hit the woodwork.

Youth also brings inexperience, though, and as Mowbray conceded, Sunderland’s players became extremely sloppy towards the end of the first half, ushering Birmingham back into the game with a series of misplaced passes and being pegged back by Koji Miyoshi’s clinical finish from Jay Stansfield’s cross.

“I thought the team epitomised a young team,” admitted Mowbray. “They were so dominant for 30 minutes, could have been three or four up, but then they got a bit slack, giving silly passes away, and I think that’s a trait of young footballers. They think it’s easy, and I reminded them of that at half-time.”

Mowbray’s words worked as his players ironed out their errors in the second half and we were much more dominant as a result.

They reclaimed the lead shortly before the hour mark, with the ball appearing to go in off former Black Cat Dion Sanderson as Triantis slid in to challenge Emanuel Aiwu after Hume looped an intelligent header over John Ruddy.

The third goal arrived with 14 minutes left, with Jack Clarke dribbling towards the byline before sliding over a low cross which was converted by Aouchiche.

The result means Wayne Rooney is still waiting for his first win as Birmingham boss. As a former teenage prodigy himself, though, even the former England starlet must have a grudging admiration for what Sunderland are bringing through.