Hartlepool United boss Colin Cooper and Hibs manager Terry Butcher watch Sunderland

FACE IN THE CROWD: Terry Butcher at Sunderland U21 v Stoke City U21 at Eppleton
FACE IN THE CROWD: Terry Butcher at Sunderland U21 v Stoke City U21 at Eppleton
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KEVIN BALL expects the January transfer window to offer a timely opportunity for several of Sunderland’s promising youngsters.

Sunderland Under-21s’ 1-1 draw with Stoke City last night was witnessed by Hartlepool United management duo Colin Cooper and Craig Hignett.

They were joined in the stands at Eppleton by Carlisle manager Graham Kavanagh and Hibernian’s ex-Black Cats boss Terry Butcher.

Academy products Mika Mandron and Liam Agnew left on loan last week to join Fleetwood and Boston respectively, and development coach Ball has reiterated how desirable first-team experience is for Sunderland’s rookies.

Ball told SportMail: “This is the time when some of the players who have been playing a lot and are finding this standard relatively comfortable need to take it to the next level.

“It’s not easy to go forward and train and play with the first-team, so go out on loan and experience the real world.

“It’s easy to stay and play this sort of football. But sometimes, they need to go and experience some real football.”

After an end-to-end opening 20 minutes last night, when forward Craig Lynch gave Sunderland the lead inside 40 seconds, the game descended into a tight, physical encounter with precious few clear-cut opportunities.

During a frenetic opening, Sunderland’s front three looked to be seriously in the mood with Lynch linking the play well as a central striker, while the lively Duncan Watmore and Charia Mavrias buzzed around him.

But once Stoke got to grips with the Black Cats front-line, the two sides cancelled each other out.

Sunderland were ahead after just 40 seconds when George Honeyman picked out Lynch, in behind the Stoke back-line, and the forward kept his cool to lift the ball delicately over outrushing goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann.

But the lead only lasted until the eighth minute after powerful James Alabi was allowed to scuff a shot on the turn, 10 yards out, which took a deflection and beat Sunderland stopper Jordan Pickford at the near post.

Lynch went close to a second in the 15th minute when he curled a low shot inches wide of the post from the edge of the area.

Pickford produced an excellent save from Karim Rossi’s header in the 67th minute to keep the scores level.

Sub David Moberg Karlsson made a bright early impression, hitting a powerful low shot straight at Bachmann from the edge of the area. Fellow summer arrival El-Hadji Ba went much closer in the 76th minute when he met Scott Harrison’s cross from the left with a stabbed right-footed shot which dropped just wide.