KEVIN BALL has urged Sunderland rookies Liam Agnew and Martin Smith to build on their first taste of life in the Premier League.
The two academy products both travelled with the Sunderland squad to Wednesday’s clash at Manchester City after Gus Poyet was hit by a series of withdrawals, and the pair could again be involved in tomorrow’s trip to Chelsea.
Under-21s creative midfielder Agnew, who is still able to feature for Sunderland despite being on a youth loan at Conference North side Boston, was an unused substitute while U18s box-to-box midfielder Smith was the 19th man in case any other players pulled out.
The duo both warmed up with the rest of Sunderland’s players before kick-off and development coach Ball says they clearly relished the experience.
But the former Sunderland skipper immediately laid down the challenge that they must use their maiden experience of life on the first-team bench as motivation to make the grade at the Stadium of Light.
Ball told SportMail: “I spoke to both of them after the game and you could tell they were both absolutely buzzing, which is great.
“I told them to bottle that feeling, put it in your back pocket and if you want it again, work your socks off.
“It’s the best feeling in the world.
“Now the challenge is for them to go on and make their debuts.”
Head coach Poyet promoted Duncan Watmore from the U21s to the first-team earlier in the season after the winger made his debut in the FA Cup third round victory over Carlisle.
Watmore would almost certainly have been included ahead of Agnew or Smith if he wasn’t on loan with SPL outfit Hibernian, while the likes of John Egan (on loan at Southend), Billy Knott (on loan at Port Vale) or Louis Laing (on trial with Blackburn) could also have been in contention.
But Agnew and Smith were both available and had caught Poyet’s eye after the Sunderland boss was impressed with their attitudes at U21 level.
“From our point of view, getting players into the first-team squad - whether training or playing - is the ultimate aim,” added Ball.
“We all understand that the under-21s develops into the first-team and that’s what we want.
“There’s other players out on loan, who were disappointed they missed out because they thought if they’d have been here, they might have had a chance and you understand that.
“But ultimately Aggers and Smithy were here and those were the ones the manager chose to step up. They’ve experienced sitting on the bench. Good on them.”