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Sunderland youngsters target final flourish after season of woe | Football


Sunderland have taken contrariness to new heights by managing to combine relegation from the Premier League with their first European final.

While David Moyes’s first team are Championship bound, Elliott Dickman’s under-23s host Porto on Wednesday night in the final of the Premier League International Cup, with a crowd of more than 20,000 expected at the Stadium of Light.

“For some of these boys it could be the highlight of their careers,” says Dickman, whose players have so far beaten PSV Eindhoven, Benfica, Athletic Bilbao and Norwich City. “The most important thing is that they enjoy it, have no regrets and are able to hold their heads up high.”

Now in its third year, the International Cup has been devised to help bridge the tricky gulf between reserve and first-team football, while also helping youngsters acclimatise to the distinctive demands of European competition.

Pitting 12 of England’s best academy sides against 12 leading development teams from across Europe, it was won by Manchester City in 2015 – when they beat Porto in the final – and Villarreal last year. Sunderland’s presence in this year’s showpiece represents a considerable fillip for the club’s fast improving academy, significantly enhancing its pulling power.

Of Dickman’s squad, Lynden Gooch, Donald Love, George Honeyman, Joel Asoro and Josh Maja have played first-team football this season, while Ethan Robson, Elliot Embleton, Max Stryjek and Rees Greenwood have warmed Moyes’s bench.

The rigours of the Championship next season may be a pitch too far for them but it is to the immense credit of Asoro, a Sweden Under-21 international forward, his fellow striker Maja and Embleton, a highly technical England Under-18 central midfielder that, despite all being 18 years old, the trio are set to start against Porto. “Those three are ahead of their development group,” says Dickman. “Hopefully they’ll continue making similar strides over the next few years but I don’t like to single anyone out, this has been a massive team effort.”

Porto must cope with Gooch’s exceptional pace – at only 21 the midfielder is already a senior, twice capped, United States international – but look far from shabby themselves. One of five “B” outfits to play in the Liga Pro, Portugal’s second division, they are a strong side possessing star talents in Rui Pedro and Diogo Dalot – and they beat Manchester United at the quarter-final stage before overcoming Swansea City in the semi-finals.

“It’s going to be difficult for us,” acknowledges Dickman, who is well aware António Folha’s side won last season’s Liga Pro but, as a B club, were ineligible for promotion. “It’s going to be a tough night against a good side with a tradition of producing players for Porto’s first team and to sell on for huge amounts of money. But we’re going to have unbelievable support behind us and we’ve done well against other top sides in Benfica, PSV and Bilbao. It’s a final and we’ll do everything we can to win it, we’ll give it a right good go.”

Robson, a central midfielder blessed with an incisive left foot, is Dickman’s captain. “It’s a great achievement from the lads and there’s a sense of pride about what we’ve achieved,” says the 20-year-old Wearsider from nearby Houghton-le-Spring. “Obviously, we’ll be a bit nervous but we’ve a good game plan and we’ll be ready to get the win. To have so many fans there is absolutely brilliant. We’re just really looking forward to the game.”

It is a message endorsed by the Durham-born Embleton. “I just can’t wait for Wednesday night,” says the teenager who endeavours to emulate Cesc Fàbregas’s game. “It’s the biggest crowd I’ll have played in front of and it’ll be a great experience. We’ve beaten some good sides along the way and we’re confident we can do it again.”

Dickman is fascinated to see how his players react to such a substantial audience. “Performing in front of such a big crowd will be a learning curve in itself,” he says. “The lads will have to be able to handle the pressure of the crowd as well as Porto. It’s a new experience for us all but the fans will hopefully be looking at some stars of the future.”

Tickets for the final are available free of charge until 5pm and there will be cash turnstiles in operation before the 7pm kick-off.



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