BEFORE he was let loose on Twitter, before he snubbed a Poppy and before he was found out in his second season, James McClean’s rise at Sunderland was a well-told fairytale.
Days into the job, then manager Martin O’Neill watched McClean slice through Manchester United’s reserve side and instantly promoted the winger. It was to prove the catalyst to Sunderland’s transformation post-Steve Bruce.
But on that December evening at Eppleton Colliery Welfare, McClean was arguably outshone – certainly in the eyes of many in the 626 crowd – by team-mate Ryan Noble, who finished with a four-goal haul.
O’Neill was looking for solutions to boost Sunderland’s goal-shy attack and Noble – from the always popular Gary Rowell-esque school of homegrown strikers – appeared to be a viable possibility after his prolific return at youth and reserve team level.
It looked to be his big chance.
Yet while McClean would go on to become a Republic of Ireland international and fixture in O’Neill’s starting XI, Noble didn’t play a competitive minute under him.
Privately, O’Neill had reservations over whether Noble was physically capable of coming to grips with the Premier League, while Sunderland’s coaching staff questioned his work-rate when not in possession.
But Noble was a natural goalscorer. That was the bottom line.
O’Neill’s decision to start with more established faces up front prompted a downwards spiral which Noble has never been able to escape from.
Last weekend, he made his debut for Darlington 1883 in a defeat at Droylsden after penning non-contract terms with the Quakers, following his release by Gateshead at the end of last season.
Now, Noble has to take some of the blame himself.
Question marks were raised over his attitude during his second loan spell at Hartlepool, during the final season of his Sunderland career.
But the Millfield-born frontman is not alone in reaching a brickwall at the Academy of Light in his early 20s and failing to make good on the promise of his teenage years.
Midfielder Adam Reed, who lined up alongside Noble last weekend, was not a star of that reserve side, yet was certainly good enough to have a career in the Football League.
But, after spells in League Two with Burton and York last season, he has been forced to take the significant plunge down the non-league pyramid.
The fall in stock for former team-mate Louis Laing has not been quite so dramatic.
But for Laing – a player whose potential was HUGE, as he came through Sunderland’s ranks – to be released by the Black Cats in the summer raised a host of question marks.
So far, Laing hasn’t got any closer to the first team at new employers Nottingham Forest though. He has swapped one Under-21 set-up for another.
The faltering development of these youngsters is a significant concern.
But what is to blame?
The merry-go-round of managers certainly hasn’t helped.
When these players have been ready to be eased into the first-team picture, there’s suddenly been a fresh face at the helm who has needed to secure short-term results. The attributes of those coming through the ranks has been a distant priority.
Inevitably, the players have to look in the mirror too.
Talent should always rise to the surface, but there is certainly substance to the argument that these youngsters are pampered before they have achieved anything in their careers.
It’s an issue which has not gone unnoticed by Gus Poyet since arriving at Sunderland.
Poyet has clearly raised question marks over the coaching set-up at the academy too after the shift in Kevin Ball’s role and Robbie Stockdale’s (currently only on a temporary basis) control of the Under-21s.
But there is far more to the likes of Noble, Laing and Reed struggling to fulfil their potential than the daily routine on the training ground.
The inclusion of Jack Colback and Jordan Henderson in the latest England squad – and the latter’s blossoming display in the 2-0 win in Switz-erland – was a clear demonstration that Sunderland’s academy have been doing something very, very right.
However, post-Colback and Henderson, there was an even steeper decline in the standard of the reserve team football and the Premier League’s brainchild of the Under-21 League has been an utter flop over the last two years.
The “Elite Player Performance Plan” is simply not fulfilling its remit of bridging the gap between the U21s and the first-team.
Until there is a more competitive set-up – which pits promising kids against seasoned professionals – it will continue to fall short.
Perhaps a quota is needed. For example, five members of the first-team squad who don’t feature on a Saturday, have to play for the second string in midweek.
But, at the moment, Premier League clubs simply organise behind-closed-doors training ground games to give their fringe players some much-needed minutes.
If the kids are too good for the U21s, then they are quickly shipped out on loan. That is often a lottery over whether they adapt or play regularly for their temporary employers though.
Until the second string structure is revitalised sufficiently, then the promise of youngsters such as Noble will continue to go to waste.
NEW ITALY boss Antonio Conte had no hesitation in recalling Emanuele Giaccherini to the international stage after the Sunderland midfielder’s World Cup exclusion.
Giaccherini was a firm favourite of Conte’s during their time together at Juventus and it was financial necessity, rather than choice, which saw the 29-year-old sold to the Black Cats just over 12 months ago.
A return to a more prominent position on the international stage may be the precurssor to a similar pattern at domestic level.
Sunderland boss Gus Poyet was impressed by Giaccherini in pre-season, with only a groin strain suffered on the eve of the campaign preventing him taking a place in the starting line-up in the opener at West Brom.
But with the balance between Connor Wickham and Steven Fletcher yet to totally convince, Giaccherini could be the one to benefit, particularly as new signing Ricky Alvarez is unlikely to be up to speed yet.
Don’t be surprised if Giaccherini runs out of the tunnel at 2.55pm on Saturday.