The 2012-13 campaign marked the start of the new national system for the under-18s set-up, with a new Barclays U18 Premier League replacing the old Premier Academy League. This was intended to enable a more secure transition for players with the potential to progress from youth football into the first team. Beginning with the teams playing each other in group leagues, the competition would climax with a play-off in May to decide the champion.
Sunderland U18s began their campaign with a home tie against Southampton, in a game which would prove to be a seven-goal thriller. A 3-4 defeat with goals from Callum Hope and a Ross Holland brace ensured a spectacular attacking display alongside worrying frailties in defence. The squad earned their first victory of the campaign in the next match, a 4-2 trouncing of local rivals Newcastle United with goals from attacking midfielder George Honeyman, central midfield man Martin Smith and two from towering striker Mikael Mandron. Perhaps an even better performance was to follow at Aston Villa, with the youngsters defending a 2-3 lead successfully despite being down to ten men for much of the second half.
Following a 0-2 defeat at Manchester United the squad got back to winning ways with a 3-2 win at home to Stoke City, with the Cats coming back from a two goal deficit to win the game with a last minute goal from the increasingly impressive French-Scottish centre-forward Mandron. Defeats to Tottenham and a 5-2 trouncing at Southampton were to follow. The latter again highlighted the strengths Sunderland had in attack counterweighted with poor defensive concentration.
A second win against Aston Villa restored confidence, a convincing 3-1 win with goals for Smith, Honeyman and Mandron. Perhaps the most memorable match of the campaign was to follow, however, with a striking 1-6 derby rout at Newcastle United. A goal each for Honeyman and Hope alongside two from Holland and Mandron ensured a fine team display against the Magpies.
Momentum from this victory was difficult to come by, however, and Sunderland lost their next three league games against Manchester United, Stoke City and Tottenham Hotspur, followed by an F.A. Youth Cup defeat against Manchester City. The bad run was ended with a 1-4 win at Wolves, with Reece Noble, Honeyman, Mandron and a late twenty-five yard stunner from Nathan Thomas sealing an emphatic win. The squad’s form would continue to struggle to find consistency, though, with a draw to Stoke City being followed by a heavy 5-1 defeat at Tottenham.
A 2-1 victory at West Ham was followed another heavy loss, this time a 4-1 trouncing at Liverpool. A quick return to form would come for the next fixture, with Sunderland owner Ellis Short in the crowd at the Academy of Light to watch a 5-3 drubbing of Wolves. A hat-trick for James Stinson and a goal apiece for Holland and Honeyman giving the Cats the victory.
After 1-1 draw with West Brom the side won three games in a row against West Brom, Stoke City and West Ham, winning 2-0 on all three occasions. Another heavy defeat was to come, however, with the arrival of Spurs at the Academy of Light resulting in a resounding 3-6 victory for the Lilywhites. This defeat would mean only a victory against Liverpool would earn the squad a place in the play-offs.
And so it came to the final league game of the campaign to ensure a top of the table finish in the second stage’s Group 1. This was achieved with an efficient and professional performance at the Academy to see of Liverpool with a 2-0 victory, with goals from the impressively prolific Honeyman and Stinson. A league had been won by Sunderland with some excellent results and performances, but it was down to the play-offs to decide the champion of the U18 Premier League.
The first play-off would pit Sunderland against Group 2 winners Aston Villa. An early goal for the Villans was cancelled out by a Liam Agnew effort from all of thirty-five yards out. Both sides were down to ten men by the penalty shoot-out, which was won by Sunderland 4-2 with Agnew, Carl Lawson, Robson and Smith netting to put the Cats through to a semi-final tie versus Elite League winners Fulham. An embattling performance was unfortunately not enough against the London club, with Sunderland attempting a comeback from 4-0 down to finish the game 4-3, Honeyman, Victor Zapata-Caicedo and Lawson supplying the efforts. Fulham would go on to play Reading in the final, which the Cottagers won to be the inaugural U18 Premier League champions.
Progress with the youth system has been seen in the promotion by a couple of the players into the first team squad towards the end of the season. Tall and pacy French-Scottish centre forward Mikael Mandron earned a substitute appearance in the 6-1 defeat at Aston Villa in April, alongside the 1-0 defeat at Spurs on the final day of the season. Irish U18s winger Adam Mitchell also made a first team debut in the latter match.