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Holding Out For A Hometown Hero

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Sunderland's 18-man Premier League squad for the match at Crystal Palace included just three players born in the region - all of whom were bought into the club. Where exactly is the local talent and why isn't youth given a chance?

Prudhoe-born midfielder George Honeyman
Prudhoe-born midfielder George Honeyman
Victor Fraile

Sunderland possess a state-of-the-art academy and are fortunate enough to have a football-mad population within the city and the surrounding area. Therefore, why aren't more youngsters making the transition from the various youth age groups into the big-time?

It seems to be an ingrained procedure throughout the country for clubs to purchase their first-team footballers from far afield and even many of the youngsters arrive in the same way who then form part of various development sides up and down the land.

Sunderland's current under-21 team boasts a number of promising players born and bred in the north-east, but arguably the two closest to making a breakthrough are French striker Mikael Mandron and Manchester-born Duncan Watmore.

Local lads Liam Agnew, George Honeyman, Martin Smith and Thomas Robson have been on the fringes of the first-team recently, but haven't yet been allowed a proper opportunity to shine.

Travelling back in time to the 1992 FA Cup final in which the Rokermen faced Liverpool at Wembley, four players who came through the ranks started the game, while another sat on the bench. Gary Owers, David Rush, Gordon Armstrong, Brian Atkinson and Warren Hawke were all products of the youth system and made up over a third of the 13-man team-sheet that day.

That was the last FA Cup showpiece to take place prior to the advent of the Premier League following the much-heralded rebranding of Football League Division One. As the 1990s wore on, numerous foreigners were imported into the competition, while it overtook Italy's Serie A as the number one destination for the greatest players on the planet to come and ply their trade.

Since that loss to Liverpool in '92, Sunderland sporadically unearthed new young guns to pin their hopes upon including Martin Smith, Michael Gray, Grant Leadbitter, Jack Colback, Jordan Henderson and Michael Bridges. However, it's become an increasingly scarce commodity for the club to witness true quality emerging from the Academy of Light and a change of approach needs to be implemented in order to encourage a more prosperous production line.

It's a delicate balancing act between handing youth a chance and placing your team in danger of a relegation battle in doing so - and most managers simply won't take the risk. An example of a club which bucked the trend was Southampton, where the likes of Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana et al broke into the first-team at St. Mary's and went on to secure international fame.

I won't pretend to be an expert on the Black Cats' recruitment and scouting policy at youth level, but perhaps that could be reviewed in some way to make sure that Sunderland don't miss out on the finest young talent this region has to offer. It's difficult to compete if the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea or Manchester United swoop in for a burgeoning starlet, but the Wearsiders need to be at the front of the queue ahead of local rivals when sourcing young potential and it would help the club's case if those prospective new recruits believe they've a chance of playing first-team football at the Stadium of Light.

In any case, the youngsters currently at the club must be given more of an opportunity to feature in the first-team if they are going to progress sufficiently. Perhaps Gus Poyet could introduce a selection policy which includes drafting a small amount of under-21 players into every match-day squad. He could still have 14 or 15 older heads within his selection to call upon, which doesn't seem a particularly huge risk when a maximum of 14 can feature anyway.

There's nothing better for fans than to identify with a local lad who's succeeding in the red-and-white stripes. It provides an extra special connection to the club that is conspicuous by its absence at the moment and must be rectified one way or another.  

In this day and age, the dream of witnessing a starting eleven made up entirely of north-easterners is both wildly optimistic and wholly unrealistic due to the global nature of today's game - but there must be space created for perhaps a four-strong contingent to participate alongside more experienced peers in the senior squad.