I went to my first game as a Rokerrite, as it was then, with me Dar at the age of seven - the game was Wolves at Roker Park, in the Fulwell End. I remember the line-up like it was yesterday - Phil Gray, Don Goodman, Alec Chamberlain and Andy Melville to name but a few. In that same season, an academy product called Martin Smith (who would later be known as Son of Pele) came to prominence, before playing a huge part in our nineties version of the great escape from relegation, under the guidance of lovable Scouser Peter Reid.
Reid later took us to an unexpected promotion with a team that still boasted Smith and had soon to be Captain Micky Gray and top scorer, the Jarra Arra, Craig Russell, as the local lads spearheading the march to the Premiership.
Smith would be capped by England Under-21’s that year at St. James Park, a match I attended with me Dar again. Latterly, Micky Gray would also pick up three England caps in the years that followed, as we went from strength to strength. Despite never realising his potential here, Martin Smith remained my original childhood hero. I can still remember singing "Martin Smith, Martin Smith, running down the wing…" with gusto, years after those seasons ended, as we drunkenly went through our old repertoire of old chants in a routine 0-2 FA Cup win at Peterborough.
Ever since those days, I’ve admittedly always looked to what happens to the young boys and where they end up - the good, the bad and the nobodies, from Ben Clark to Chris Lumsden.
Jordan Henderson is of course probably our most successful academy product. Now captaining Liverpool, he has been capped countless times by England, vying for a place in England’s Euro 2016 last sixteen game against Iceland. Jack Colback has also been relatively successful, and has played Premier League football regularly (unless recently chortle chortle) since he came into our first team under Steve Bruce.
But today I want to focus on the career of a lad who was a few years younger than me in my school, and was viewed as a massive prospect by Roy Keane at the time of his debut - Martyn Waghorn. Born in South Shields, ‘Waggy’ made his debut and picked up man of the match as he faced the might of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanda Vidic on Boxing Day 2007. Speaking about our young prospect, top bloke Roy said he would go on to have "a long and successful career". Despite a largely unspectacular loan move to Charlton Athletic, where he scored one goal (against Derby County) in seven games, most of us felt we had another exciting young academy product on our hands. A regular scorer in our reserve team, most of us felt he would gradually come into the team and forge part of our attacking force, learning from the likes of Kenwyne Jones and, later, Darren Bent.
By the time of his next appearance, Roy Keane was already losing his grip on his managerial role after an ego clash with the players he’d signed in the summer, and sadly left soon after Martyn’s only appearance in November at Chelsea. He wouldn’t appear again that season, and we basically fell over the finishing line under the ill-equipped Ricky Sbragia.
By the time Steve "Wa finished tenth ya knaaaa" Bruce took over, Martyn was needing a loan move away from Sunderland in order to gain vital first-team experience. Nigel Pearson took him to Leicester in 2009, and he immediately scored as a substitute on his debut at Swansea. Originally, he had to be content to be an impact sub at Leicester, but soon become invaluable as he smashed in twelve goals in twenty-eight starts, gaining himself the Foxes Young Player of the Year award. As most of us bemoaned the lack of quality coming through the academy, we were slowly developing the likes of Jordan Henderson, Jack Colback and Martyn himself.
The season that followed was the first time in a long time it looked like we had built a team capable of achieving top ten status - we broke the bank for Asamoah Gyan, started learning of Hendo’s real talent, Darren Bent continued to smash in goal after goal, and we even had the luxury of having quality like Bolo Zenden on the bench. We all began to see a quality set of players youngsters like Waghorn could learn from, and improve from. The local boy started the first few league games on the bench, and came on in the League Cup win over Colchester, going close with an effort that just skimmed the bar.
In the same week, we picked up Manchester United youngster Danny Welbeck on a season long loan as our forward line became as strong as most of my generation remember, with Waghorn frustrated at the move after a strong campaign at Leicester, a bid of three million pounds was made for his services and duly accepted. A few months beforehand, Bruce had said "I’ve earmarked him as my fourth striker, so unless it’s absolutely totally, ridiculous money, I don’t think I’d be tempted at all…He’s become a man all of a sudden and the reports I got last season were good". As I remember, most of us were unhappy with the sale, citing we should be playing our prospects, rather than training youngsters from Manchester United.
Shortly after his move, Sven-Goran Eriksson took charge at the then Walkers’ Stadium and Waghorn lost his place after not really kicking on from there. He would later move to Wigan permanently, after loan moves to Hull City, Millwall and of course Wigan themselves.. He impressed at Wigan during a difficult period for them, but he sadly endured relegation for the first time in his career in his second season as a bright career started spiraling into a bit of a stop-start one.
Last season, new Rangers manager Mark Warburton took him to Ibrox as he built a strong and hungry young squad to try and return to Scottish football’s summit. After hitting a brace on his debut in a 2-6 win at Hibernian’s Easter Road he went on to score a career best twenty-eight goals in total, despite being out for eight weeks in the middle of the campaign, with Rangers winning the Scottish Championship at a canter.
Now seen as a leading light for the Gers as the Glasgow giants return to the countries elite league, his stop start career seems to have finally found a home after years of bad moves and sheer bad luck. However I can’t help but think if things had worked out differently - if Leicester hadn’t offered a "ridiculous" three million quid, if he had remained patient, or if we hadn’t signed expensive mercenaries like Asamoah Gyan, he would have been another Premier League regular - be it with us or somebody else - from our quietly successful academy system.