When Sunderland snapped up Aji Alese from West Ham in the summer, I’m sure we all weren’t quite sure what to expect from him - after all, he hadn’t played any senior league football for The Hammers prior to arriving on Wearside.
That’s the risk you take when you sign a young player. The academy system is flooded with talented lads who have plenty of promise, but the key to whether they have a successful career or not depends upon how they adapt when they play senior football.
For every Jordan Henderson there are forty Nathan Luscombe's, and the reality is that being talented is only a small part of whether a player makes it or not. Just look at the Northern League for instance, where most of the squads there are made up of blokes who once upon a time played in the academy system, but fell away for whatever reason.
To make it, you have to have the mentality of a champion. You have to be prepared to train harder than your colleagues every day, and you need a bit of luck too. You won’t get many chances, but when you do you have to take them.
Aji Alese was a standout for West Ham at youth level but hadn’t been given a chance in their first team. He played in a bunch of pre-season friendlies in the summer for David Moyes’ side, but his only experience in senior football came through brief loan spells with Accrington and Cambridge.
So, it’s fair to say that the jump from U23s football to the blood and thunder of the Championship is a fair old leap. His first start, in the cup at Sheffield Wednesday, was tough - he struggled and looked exactly like a young kid trying too hard.
But he didn’t let that define him, and when he got his first proper chance to shine away at Reading he was outstanding. He took it one game at a time and in each of them he was brilliant - he looked like he’d played at this level for years.
He’s been able to change between positions for the good of the team, playing left back, wing back, in a two and on the left of a three. He’s good going forward, something which surprised me because his size and stature is that of a centre half. He’s great in one-on-one situations and reads the game so well - and he’s very good in the air. He’s been able to successfully handle some of the best forwards in the league.
He hasn’t been totally perfect, but for me I don’t think we could have asked much more of Aji whenever he’s played in a Sunderland shirt.
The big disappointment recently has been his fitness, but it shouldn’t be too long before he’s back in the fold and contributing regularly. We could really do with him back sooner rather than later, adding some balance to our left hand side that has been lacking recently.
From here, the only way is up for Aji Alese. He’s got so much more room for improvement, and I think that he’s one of the most promising young players we’ve had at Sunderland in many years. If he can stay fit he’ll be one of the first names on the teamsheet throughout the remainder of the season, and that can only be a good thing for us.
Happy Birthday Aji - and keep on going!