Josh Maja impresses new Sunderland manager Simon Grayson with pre-season impact

Josh Maja.
Josh Maja.

Simon Grayson is not the first Sunderland boss to be impressed by teenage striker Josh Maja.

Maja was just 17 when he first caught the eye of former boss Sam Allardyce in his first session with the first team at the Academy of Light in the spring of 2016.

“There will be strikers coming in, but he has done well, he has to keep working and improving.”

Simon Grayson

He was rated as one of the top prospects making their way through the club’s academy, with Jermain Defoe taking him under his wing.

Maja continued to regularly train with the first team, as do a lot of the Under-23 players, and he enjoyed a superb 2016-17 campaign for the second string.

The 18-year-old scored 14 goals in 25 starts for Elliott Dickman’s side last term and he has caught the eye in Sunderland’s early pre-season programme.

Given the numbers available to Grayson, the Under-23 players have enjoyed a big role in pre-season so far.

And Maja has been the standout performer.

Defoe, who has since moved to AFC Bournemouth on a free transfer, mentored Maja on the training ground, often giving advice, hints and tips to Maja and the club’s other promising teenage striker Joel Asoro.

And there can’t be many better strikers to learn the tricks of the trade from.

With Sunderland chronically shy in the striking department, the spotlight has fallen on Maja after he caught the eye of Grayson during the Austrian training camp before bagging a brace in the opening friendly win over Bury.

At Gigg Lane, Maja showed his potential with two goals.

On as a second half substitute, Maja released Wahbi Khazri in the first instance, the Tunisian showing a burst of pace before rolling the ball back to Maja who scored from six-yards.

It was a tap-in effectively but that does his work in the build-up and anticipation a disservice.

Maja then scored the winning goal late on, a clinical volley at the back post.

He didn’t find the net but he did well against Hibernian on Sunday and will be given further minutes against Livingston on Wednesday night and against St Johnstone on Saturday when the club’s mini-tour of Scotland comes to a close.

London-born Maja, who moved to the North East after spells at Crystal Palace, Fulham and Manchester City, has grabbed his opportunity with both hands.

Twice in the space of a week Grayson has pinpointed Maja as a serious talent.

Technically very strong, quick, a good first touch, an eye for goal, Maja also provides a presence up front.

There is always a word of warning when it comes to pre-season games and history will teach you not to put too much pressure on those youngsters that catch the eye in the early pre-season programme.

Competing week in, week out, in the gruelling, demanding Championship is another beast altogether and nobody is resting their hopes for the new season on the 18-year-old’s shoulders.

Sunderland clearly need reinforcements and added firepower, with experienced strikers at the top of Grayson’s wanted list.

But Maja couldn’t have done more to stake a claim for at least more first chances this season.

There were strong calls for more youngsters to be given a chance at the end of last season once the club’s relegation had been confirmed. The Under-23’s heavy defeat to Porto in the Premier League International Cup perhaps showed many were not yet ready for the step up.

Maja, though, continues to show his potential and the 2017-18 campaign could yet prove his breakthrough season. With so many games to play, the opportunities will be there if he keeps working hard.

As Grayson says: “There will be strikers coming in, but he has done well, he has to keep working and improving.”