Over here in Japan, football is not quite right. It’s the sort of place where people wear Under Armor because it looks good, and wrap tape around their socks because Ronaldo does it.
Football in the far east is not the game that I grew up with in England. In fact, it’s far from it.
I suppose this should have been obvious given that the Japanese clamour for what, in my opinion, is the most boring game on the planet – baseball. Football, or soccer as they obnoxiously call it, is a long way behind in terms of popularity.
American attitudes towards the game are prevalent here; they call penalties “PKs”, a pitch is known as a field, boots are “cleats”, and a clean sheet is a “shut-out”. As if that isn’t annoying enough, it’s the sort of place where everyone wants to be a striker and have little interest in the defensive or structural aspects of the game. The result is a flock of kids running after the same ball. Like I said, it’s far from the game I loved in England.
But that’s what made my interactions with the kids after England’s game with Colombia so interesting. I love chatting with the kids about football, and the World Cup, but I usually bore pretty quickly due to their abhorrent adoration for a select few of the world’s best players. However, in this instance they took a break from raving about Mbappe to mention one of our own.
“Mr. James,” as they hilariously call me, “Jordan Pickford! WOW!”
“Great keeper!” said one boy, “Number one!” added another.
Maybe it was the euphoria of the World Cup, but it really stirred up a sense of pride.
Jordan Pickford, a local boy and a ferocious Sunderland fan, was getting international recognition from a bunch of kids who barely know of a footballing world outside of Messi, Ronaldo and other such “world-class” players. And if that wasn’t enough, the school team’s goalkeeper now wants to be a sweeper keeper and is practicing his kicking.
One wonders where he dreamed up that idea…
Praise for our other international star, Jordan Henderson, wasn’t far behind. I asked a group of boys: “Who is England’s best player?” and the question was met with a chorus of “Harry Kane! Harry Kane!”, but one boy, who dared break from the group answered loudly and proudly “Jordan Henderson!”.
“Wow,” I replied “why?”
This was stretching the limits of his English ability, but he stumbled out: “He has great energy!”
And there you have it; conclusive proof that our two Jordan’s were England’s best players at the World Cup. But with my poorly reduced conclusions aside, what we should really take from this is that the potential of Sunderland’s academy is limitless.
Our graduates are making a name for themselves, and inspiring youngsters even in faraway, relatively detached places such as Japan.
To date our academy has been relatively successful, and profitable. Most obviously, the two aforementioned Jordans have fetched around £50 million combined. But let’s not forget the smaller deals, ranging from Grant Leadbitter and Martyn Waghorn to the more recent departure of Joel Asoro.
These three deals, of course depending upon the clauses of Asoro’s transfer, could have fetched the club almost £10 million. And whilst few children are running around Japan talking about these three, I’m sure that makes no difference to the club, who would be somewhat content with a profit of £60 million for five players mentioned.
It makes one wonder what could have been if only we had spent those profits wisely. If Steve Bruce had invested just a part of Henderson’s fee on a great midfielder, who could dictate play and create from deep, then perhaps our fortunes could have been greatly different - but that’s a debate for a different article.
One thing we can say with certainty, however, is that our academy over the last couple of decades has been very decent indeed, and with the correct nurturing, there’s no reason why we can’t create a conveyor of talent. By all means, some of our current prospects look like they could be our next success stories.
Let’s get behind them, the future is as bright as we make it.