Top Ten: Sunderland AFC's Academy Graduates

This week Roker Report brings you another Top Ten - this time looking at the club's Academy products.

Alright everyone, time for a Top Ten. We haven't done one for a while, so it's really about time we did one, and this week after seeing the emergence of Jack Colback and Jordan Henderson recently, plus of course the buzz and excitement around the likes of Billy Knott, John Egan and Ryan Noble leaves us very excited for the future.

With that in mind, we've decided to compile a list of Top Ten Academy Products, from the list provided on SAFC.com, just in case there's any quibbles.

Anyway, let's get on with the list...

10. Martyn Waghorn

This could be deemed a superficial selection, as ‘Waggy' gets the nod for Steve Bruce's decision to sell him in order to raise funds for Asamoah Gyan. Not every Academy product will go on to become an established Premier League player, but Waghorn's impressive loan spell at Leicester City - after a fledgling stint at Charlton Athletic - indicated that he could prove to be one of the Championship's better front men. Alas, Leicester paid £3m for the now 22-year-old and has anyone seen him since?

9. Kevin Kyle

I know what you're thinking: what's this lummox doing here?

Well, former baggage handler Kevin Kyle had that one season, where he and Marcus Stewart seemed hell-bent on firing us back to the Premier League at the first time of asking. On his day - particularly before the hip injuries - Kyle's limitations as a footballer would be offset by a tremendous work rate and that knees-up, jig kind of goal celebration.

Had Mick McCarthy not taken him off as he had Darren Ward and the rest of the Milwall defence pinned to its own box in the FA Cup Semi Final, Sunderland fans may remember Kyle in a different fashion.

8. Darren Holloway

Holloway progressed through the club's youth ranks and was part of Peter Reid's side that dared Sunderland fans to dream once again. After being promoted with a record 105 points, a seventh-place finish was on the cards.

The central defender was very much part of the squad during these years, but was still able to make timely contributions to the cause before joining Wimbledon in 2000.

7. Ben Alnwick

Ah, now we have the perfect example of why a few eye-catching saves does not make you a good goalkeeper.

Ben Alnwick was thrust into the limelight at the tail end of Sunderland's 04-05 promotion push, and after impressing in the game against Leicester City which confirmed a return to the Premier League, he would establish himself as a keeper for the future at Upton Park, where he was simply brilliant in a 2-1 win over West Ham.

After a bit of a re-shuffle in the goalkeeping department ahead of the next season, Alnwick found himself behind new signing Kelvin Davis before breaking into the team again. Following relegation, Alnwick was given the club's no. 1 shirt but he never replicated the form shown in his first senior outings, and was eventually sold to Tottenham Hotspur and replaced by their second-choice stopper Marton Fulop.

Since joining Spurs, Alnwick has had a plethora of loan moves in the lower leagues.

6. Grant Leadbitter

When Grant Leadbitter first came on to the scene after representing England at almost every age-grade level, comparisons were made to Paul Scholes - due to his penchant for long-range strikes.

But as the novelty of having an Academy product in the team again wore off - especially after being relegated with just 15 points - the realisation that Leadbitter was okay, not particularly anything more, came to the fore. Yet Leadbitter managed over 100 appearances for the Lads, and after impressing during that wretched season, he became an essential part of Roy Keane's rebuilding of the club.

Leadbitter's intentions to move two years later were understandable following the death of his father, and like Waghorn, SAFC attracted good money for a player they grew themselves. He can be found at Ipswich Town still smacking the odd 25-yarder home.

5. George McCartney

McCartney's inclusion is without the ‘second coming', before you all jump down my neck.

The left-back is another Academy product to surpass 100 games, and debuted back in 2000, where his natural position was occupied by three-time England man Michael Gray. As a result, McCartney occasionally featured at centre-back as well as at left-back until he came to prominence under Mick McCarthy - where he forged a wonderful understanding with Julio Arca down the left.

It's easy to say that SAFC have learned the hard way why they say ‘never go back' - McCartney was sold for £600,000 plus Clive Clarke and returned for an undisclosed fee rumoured to be tenfold what West Ham originally paid. Oh, and his performances were far worse.

4. Jack Colback

The most recent of Academy products to be a regular in the first team, Colback had to be far more patient for his first team chance - despite being captain of the Academy side that includes the likes of Waghorn and Jordan Henderson - but hasn't looked back since establishing himself at the tail end of last season.

Two loan spells at Ipswich under Roy Keane encouraged his potential to show itself, and his composure and assured touch have been much appreciated sub-plots to Martin O'Neill's revival. Having proven to be a capable left-back as well during that time, Colback's attitude and versatility are essential.

Colback enters this list as a projected four, because simply, at this rate, he could turn out to be the best of the lot.

3. Michael Bridges

A tall, slight forward that handily appeared as a Plan B on the rare occasion that the Niall Quinn-Kevin Phillips partnership was not enough, Michael Bridges was arguably the most gifted to emerge from Sunderland's youth ranks in decades, prompting Leeds United to pay £5m for his services after contributing to Peter Reid's record-winning promotion team.

Bridges' elegance was a stand-out part of the Leeds side that ‘chased the dream' (copyright, Peter Risdale) but injuries were soon to cruelly stem his development. He returned to the club in 2004, initially on loan, to bolster another promotion push. His late goal away to Stoke City kept things ticking over, but by that time Bridges was already on the decline.

He's been much-travelled ever since - spells in England have punctuated his time over in Australia.

2. Michael Gray

Local lad Michael Gray made his Sunderland debut, aged 18, after opting against signing for Manchester United. As a fresh face in the squad that was full of running, Gray was deployed in a number of positions in his formative years, before establishing himself at left-back.

He formed a devastating partnership with Allan Johnston down Sunderland's left flank and his form in the 98-99 title winning season earned him a call-up to the England squad. He remained a key part of the side as promotion to the top-flight was backed up by consecutive seventh-place finishes.

The decisive miss in the play-off final against Charlton was easily offset by what would become a trademark overlapping run and cross for Niall Quinn to head in the winner at St James' Park against Newcastle in 2000.

1. Jordan Henderson

This may be controversial, given that Gray was such a stalwart, but hear me out.

Having been given his chance by Steve Bruce after a loan spell at Coventry City, Henderson was something of a revelation in his rookie season.

After succumbing to ‘burn out' his form would dip before earning a call-up to the senior England side, where he was strangely deployed as a defensive midfielder by Fabio Capello - the man who has never been to the Stadium of Light. Yet that would not deter potential suitors, particularly after Bruce's claim that Henderson ‘is the best young British player there is'. In hindsight, Sunderland fans should have been aware of his claims considering what followed his sacking.

Henderson showed no shortage of skill during his time in the Sunderland first team, and there is hardly a more dedicated young player in the country.

He's under huge scrutiny at Anfield at present, but the manner in which he dragged SAFC kicking and screaming to victory against Wigan last season shows just how good he can be. Had it not been for his two goals and those priceless three points, the rot that had set in may have overwhelmed us. So couple his performances with his sale that allowed us to rebuild after Bruce had backed us into a corner in the transfer market with his loans, and this, and that, and Henderson takes pride and place as number one.

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Who do you feel is the best to come through the Academy Of Light? Is there a glaring omission? Or maybe you'd rearrange them. Vote in our poll for your best, and of course leave us your comments too below.

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