TONY Mowbray says his young Sunderland players have "stepped up" and filled the leadership void after the exit of Ross Stewart and with club captain Corry Evans a long-term absentee.

Evans hasn't played for Sunderland since suffering a serious knee injury in January, while Stewart - who was a hugely influential figure in the dressing room - left for Southampton in the summer, having missed the entirety of the second half of last season.

Leaders such as Danny Batth and Bailey Wright also moved on in the summer, leaving a very young Sunderland squad lacking experience.

On five occasions this season Sunderland have named a starting line-up with an average age below 23 - the only team in the Championship to have done so. However, despite the lack of experience in the ranks, Mowbray has seen leaders emerge and is the proud of the manner in which his side are "growing together".

With Luke O'Nien missing the win over Birmingham City last weekend, Dan Neil - who is just 21 - captained Sunderland. He has helped to fill the leadership void - but he's not the only one.

"I think they've had to step up, the club captain has been injured for a long time now, never mind Ross Stewart (leaving)," says Mowbray.

"People have to step up. Dan Neil I think has stepped up amazingly well on the pitch. He's so much more vocal now. He was a quiet lad when I came in and was probably happy to be in the team, even though he played in League One a fair bit.

"We're trying to grow them, we're trying to sprinkle water on them and make them flower really and when a void is created by somebody leaving, somebody has to fill it.

"There are a few players. I think Trai Hume somewhere down the line can have great leadership qualities, Dan Neil in my opinion is growing fast and having opinions and a voice on the pitch.

"Jack (Clarke) has a big personality to be fair and is backing that up with his talent on the pitch. Luke O'Nien has taken the captain role and he's a different type of human being to a stereotypical football player. He's academic, very thoughtful about everything and knocks on my door or Kristjaan's (Speakman) door to discuss things.

"I think they're growing together is what I'm trying to say, nobody has come in and grabbed it."


One experienced figure who did arrive in the summer is Bradley Dack and Mowbray says the playmaker's influence in the dressing room will grow as the season goes on.

"Dack is a guy with opinions and yet if you're injured and not ready to play in the team it's very difficult to be a big personality," he said.

"I know if Dack gets himself fit at some stage and is banging in goals every week he will really show leadership qualities, but at the moment it's difficult to do that."

Mowbray added: "All that said, I do think when I've watched the team over the last few weeks they've shown great desire and intention to win games. I think they're going in the right direction and I almost know what our team is going to perform like week to week. That gives you a confidence about your team that you know what you're going to get generally."