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The trees at the Academy of Light, which are small.

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Sunderland’s Academy Awards!

The Academy of Light has helped to produce a wealth of professional footballers who ply their trade elsewhere - and Sunderland’s first team is now reaping the benefits too.

Field of dreams

The Champions League always attracts the attention of the neutrals, and Sunderland fans had a particular reason to be interested in the final at the end of last month.

Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson continues to be an ambassador for the area he comes from, and there is a great sense of pride in seeing him performing so well on the big stage.

Across Stanley Park, Jordan Pickford also came through the ranks at his boyhood club and remains a massive Lads fan, despite moving to Everton to further his career. Like Henderson, he continues to be an influential performer in the England national side, and was in phenomenal form as he helped Everton avoid relegation at the end of 2021/2022.

The pair continue to hold a place in the hearts of many Sunderland fans, and for a long time they have been the shining examples of the club’s superb Category One ‘Academy of Light’ facility.

Graduates are plying their trade across the Football League and beyond, but up to now, we have rarely seen so many breaking into the first team at the Stadium of Light, before making their mark on the club in the long-term.

From the 2008 Sunderland annual

Years of treading water at Premier League level has no doubt played a big part in this, creating a glass ceiling that hindered the progress of many young players.

Perhaps managers were unwilling to throw promising youngsters into the side when points were so precious, forcing lads to look elsewhere for games, whereas the real generational talent- such as the two Jordans- burst through so quickly that they became sellable commodities before Sunderland got the chance to really benefit.

When I first started going to games in the early-to-mid-1990s, it was common to see the club fielding two or three local lads in the starting eleven each week. These were players that either were from Sunderland-supporting families or had been connected to the youth system since adolescence.

Off the top of my head, I can only really think of Jack Colback as an example of a player who became a long-term regular during our longest Premier League run. Grant Leadbitter, on the other hand, spent a number of years playing elsewhere after first breaking through, before making an emotional return in 2019.

Several other prospects have come along and showed promise, but things never really worked out for them – until recently of course.

One of the things used to comfort supporters after relegation to the Championship and League One was the idea that it opened the door for players already in the building, but who had been overlooked for more established names, which was certainly the case for the likes of George Honeyman.

From the 2011 Sunderland annual

Despite being relatively inexperienced, Honeyman quickly became one of the most important players in the team, and whilst it wasn’t always apparent in some of his teammates, he showed a level of commitment and application that the fans were desperate to see.

Whereas one or two of his colleagues couldn’t get out of the club quickly enough, the fact that Honeyman was so visibly devastated when he was sold to Hull City said a lot.

There have been rumours recently of a Wearside return for Honeyman, and whilst that could be little more than idle newspaper talk, it is certainly the case that we’ve hit a peak during the Stadium of Light era in terms of seeing youth players turning senior.

It can be heartbreaking to watch somebody’s aspirations fade, but all those hours of coaching and training behind the scenes become so much more apparent when you saw Dan Neil being handed this season’s Young Player of the Year award.

Similarly, you cannot tell me that winning at Wembley wasn’t made sweeter by having Anthony Patterson, Elliot Embleton and Lynden Gooch on the pitch, either.

Embleton and Patterson played in positions that the Academy has been particularly good at developing players for, and Gooch is the embodiment of a decade’s worth of progression.

Scouted from thousands of miles away and nurtured into an adopted Mackem, Gooch has pulled on the shirt over two hundred times, and has given his all every time he did so.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Under Alex Neil, we have witnessed more experienced pros getting games- perhaps due to some of the younger lads suffering from burnout more than anything else, but a balance is no bad thing.

You cannot pick players on sentiment, but the issue is when, as seen in seasons before, an up-and-coming option with the capacity to improve has their progress blocked by somebody more short-term.

What they may lack in talent is often compensated for by having an affinity and understanding of the club. They don’t have to be dyed-in-the-wool supporters, but if they have been at the club for most of their lives and are deemed worthy of a spot, there will be a willingness to pay back that faith.

From the 2008 Sunderland annual

That deep-seated connection may just add a subconscious level of energy and desire to what they can produce. I’m not suggesting that players recruited from elsewhere do not have drive- Carl Winchester and Dennis Cirkin, for example, have made it obvious that they are proud to play for Sunderland, but homegrown talent offers a different angle, and may receive an extra push from the fans.

Either way, we want people here for the right reasons. I understand that playing football is a career, but the ones that think they are doing us a favour by being here are invariably the ones who let us down.

You don’t have to make 100+ starts to be classed as a success.

In previous years, it was Chris Brown, and more recently, Jack Diamond has demonstrated how working your way up and being around the first team to provide a different option often makes for a stronger squad.

It can help if there is a group of faces that know each other and understand each other’s way of playing, too. All of these factors benefit the current side, and can ensure that the Academy does much more than just generate transfer fees.

Sunderland’s ability to produce international class players in both the men’s and women’s games has long been established and will hopefully continue. Fans enjoy watching these players doing the area proud, and it is pleasing to see that access to U23 games has been included in season cards for 2022/23.

It presents an opportunity to take in a match and help further support the club, and you might just get to see the next group of Stadium of Light favourites along the way.


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