Academy stars have been '˜shining light' as Sunderland hope for brighter days ahead
When Robbie Stockdale spoke of the Champions League talent in Wolverhampton's squad, he was almost certainly referring to Ruben Neves. The deep-lying playmaker has caught the eye this season thanks to his spectacular goals and metronomic passing in front of the back three.
It has brought just six wins, seen off two managers, and brought morale on Wearside to its lowest ebb for generations.
Robbie Stockdale is now into his third stint as caretaker manager this season. He started pre-season in charge while takeover negotiations cast a cloud over the club and he ends it in much the same vein.
Like all on Wearside, he was left stunned and shocked by last week’s sacking of Chris Coleman, but hopeful that a change in ownership can be the catalyst for an upturn in fortunes.
Stewart Donald waits for EFL approval of his takeover, but, as he draws near to the sale of National League club Eastleigh, that should be moving closer.
Stockdale’s future, like most at the club, is uncertain, but there is little doubt that the new regime will be building around a group of young players who have impressed in difficult circumstances this season.
George Honeyman, Lynden Gooch, Joel Asoro and Josh Maja all have just one year left on their contracts, but the Black Cats will be eager to keep them on for next season.
Ethan Robson, who signed a two-year deal earlier this season, is another being earkmarked for a big role in the League One rebuild.
Whoever is named as the next manager, and Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder did little to deter Sunderland in his press conference yesterday, will be faced with a number of monumental challenges.
Getting local talent who love the club into the team will not be one of them and having overseen much of their development, it is a source of great pride for Stockdale.
He said: “We talk about the academy lads who have come into the team. I think they’ve been a shining light for the club really.
“I’ve worked with these players for a long time, so I know that they are good players.
“The biggest thing for me, and the thing that I’m proudest about, is that not one of them has shirked it.
“In an environment that can be difficult, in a team that is struggling for results at the wrong end of the table, you could understand if a young player went into their shell.
“I haven’t seen that in any of them. They might make mistakes, but they’ll never let you down, and that has been a big positive for me.”
The group earned praise from Coleman for their response to drifting out of the picture after initially impressing.
Gooch and Robson, in particular, used the time away to improve and showed their progress on returning to top-team action.
For Stockdale, that is a sure sign that they can go on to have big futures in the game.
He said: “It’s normal for young players to hit the ground running straight away, and then everyone makes a big noise that they’re going to be this and that.
“Then there will be a dip – that’s normal. It’s how you build them back up.”
Hopes are high that there will be another generation breaking through, if not next season then in the coming years.
Luke Molyneux is a talented attacker capable of playing wide right or through the middle, and has had an excellent season in the Under-23s.
He travelled to Fulham with the first-team squad last week, alongside the technically-gifted Elliot Embleton and prodigious 16-year-old Bali Mumba.
It may be that tomorrow’s clash with Wolves (12.30pm kick-off) comes too soon for those players, but Stockdale hopes that, after a wretched campaign, these youngsters can show that there are some green shoots for supporters to believe in.
He said: “We’re talking about playing some more young players against Wolves.
“It’ll do them no good whatsoever if it’s too much for them and they’re exposed to this fantastic team, they can’t get a touch and it is a bit of a mockery of a game.
“I don’t want that, it will be a balancing act, but there will be some involved.”