JORDAN Henderson and Jack Colback cut their teeth in the most successful Sunderland youth team side of the last decade.
While the bulk of their team-mates have graduated away from the Stadium of Light, the two members of the 2008 FA Youth Cup semi-finalists have survived the cull, with a third home-grown youngster – Ryan Noble – joining them on the pitch at St Andrew’s on Saturday.
Cliché dictates that experience is needed for a relegation battle – a theory arguably proved by Birmingham midfielders Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer inspiring Alex McLeish’s side to seven points out of a possible nine.
But Sunderland’s young duo far outshone their elders in the midfield battle and must surely now be handed the baton to end this shameful plummet down the Premier League table.
Henderson and Colback have Sunderland in their blood and clearly care deeply about the club’s fate, epitomised by their ceaseless efforts to get the visitors back in the game.
Necessity may have forced Bruce’s hand in recalling Henderson after his much-needed rest was restricted to a solitary game.
But it may prove to be sufficient for the 20-year-old, who was the best player on the pitch in the second half.
Henderson looked like the player who sparked talk of £20million bids and clearly benefited from being freed from the shackles of central midfield by lining up on the right.
He went as close to anyone for Sunderland after going inches away from finishing off the move of the match following a slick link-up with Danny Welbeck and Asamoah Gyan.
But he was also Sunderland’s chief provider, finding space on the right, flighting several teasing balls across the face and using the overlapping Ahmed Elmohamady intelligently.
If Henderson was the star of the second half, then Colback took the plaudits in the first.
The former Ipswich loanee looks a much sturdier specimen these days, providing Lee Cattermole with a midfield partner who was equally adept at pressurising and regaining possession.
Colback refused to be dominated in the air and, refreshingly, persisted in making runs beyond the strikers – an attribute far too often missing from Sunderland’s midfield this season.
The difference between Sunderland and Birmingham’s respective midfields though was that two members of the home quartet found the net.
Craig Gardner’s victory-sealing strike was his ninth goal of the season – almost double the tally managed by Sunderland’s entire midfield.
If the Black Cats are to survive in the top flight and, in the process, find some redemption for under-fire manager Steve Bruce, then that’s a statistic which needs to change, particularly when there is precious little punch to the frontline.
Welbeck continues to look off the pace since returning from injury while Gyan and Stephane Sessegnon look wide-eyed at the trench-warfare of a relegation scrap.
Gyan worked harder in ensuring Ferguson didn’t have room to spray passes around from the sanctuary of the quarterback role in front of the back four.
But he was handled too comfortably by Roger Johnson while fellow big-money buy Sessegnon still produces the good, the bad and the ugly, and needed to show much more conviction when faced with an unguarded goal.
While the goals failed to arrive, Sunderland can at least salvage some confidence from their display.
Despite Simon Mignolet’s horrifying lack of communication with Phil Bardsley, there was much more resolve to Sunderland’s back line.
After being left for dead by Cameron Jerome in the opening 90 seconds, Michael Turner looked fairly assured alongside Nedum Onuoha, with the duo practising the no-nonsense school of defending.
But another positive performance won’t cut the ice against Wigan this weekend.
Results at the basement won’t continue to go in Sunderland’s favour and Wigan is arguably the final chance to gain that survival-ensuring three points before the Black Cats can truly be classed as being at the epicentre of the relegation scrap.
Bruce’s young guns will be relied upon to show more guts if they are to achieve some glory.