Chris Young Column - Boro graduates crucial for Sunderland survival bid

Lee Cattermole in action for Sunderland against Hull City. Picture by FRANK REID
Lee Cattermole in action for Sunderland against Hull City. Picture by FRANK REID
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THE SPOTLIGHT will shine bright on Sunderland’s next batch of hopefuls next week.

Next Wednesday’s FA Youth Cup tie against Newcastle United should be a cracker, with both bragging rights and a place in the quarter-finals of the prestigious competition at stake.

But can any of those teenagers cross the seismic chasm with the Premier League?

Post-Jordan Henderson and Jack Colback, it has been a problem for Sunderland.

The academy set-up rightly regards it as a success if they develop a player and he goes on to have a professional career in the game.

Sunderland have been superb at doing that.

Connor Oliver and David Ferguson are already playing first-team football after joining Championship club Blackpool permanently earlier this month, while Sunderland will come up against another of their academy graduates, Billy Knott, in the FA Cup fifth round at Bradford City, if they prevail against Fulham next week.

But the remit is to produce Premier League players and since the club returned to the top flight in 2007, only Henderson and Colback have really made the grade.

Hopes are high for 20-year-old keeper Jordan Pickford – out on loan at Bradford yet ineligible for the fifth round tie – Duncan Watmore has trained with the first-team this season, while U18 duo Ethan Robson and Rees Greenwood have stood out in the Youth Cup run and have half a chance.

But the need to smooth out the pathway from promising 16-year-old to first-teamer is something which Lee Congerton has been acutely aware of since taking the reins as Sunderland sporting director.

In an era, where Sunderland simply cannot compete financially with the upper echelons of the Premier League, they have to thrive in other ways and homegrown talent is one of them.

Just look at how much Southampton’s conveyor belt has achieved, both in terms of league position and coffers into the club’s bank account.

And closer to home, Middlesbrough – 5-1 winners over Sunderland U18s last weekend – continue to churn out players into the first-team squad, albeit it is doubtless easier to hand youngsters a chance in the Championship.

It is a good job Boro have been so successful because Sunderland will rely on two – possibly three – of their academy graduates to stay in the Premier League this season.

Sunderland have missed Lee Cattermole at the start of 2015.

Badly missed him.

There have been bigger factors behind Sunderland’s only victory in this calendar year coming against Championship strugglers Leeds – an unkind fixture list, and, more tellingly, the Black Cats’ attacking struggles.

But Sunderland lose some of their edge when Cattermole is watching from the stands.

They lack midfield bite, and more tellingly lack someone who drags players by the scruff of the neck and drives them forward.

Cattermole is a leader, both on and off-the-field.

Even if last weekend’s dire stalemate with Fulham demonstrated that the holding role in front of the back four is redundant in a 3-5-2 operation, Cattermole could still operate as one of the two deeper lying middle men.

It showed against Fulham too, that whatever formation Gus Poyet opts for, there has to be a place for Adam Johnson, Emanuele Giaccherini or Ricky Alvarez to inject some flair into proceedings.

Johnson has been a rare shining light over the last month or so, and his likely return from injury against Burnley this weekend is imperative.

On those rare occasions that Sunderland have managed to find the net this season, Johnson has invariably had a hand in it.

If Jermain Defoe is going to receive those passes in behind an opposition defence which he craves, then Johnson is by far the most likely candidate to play them, as he attempts to pick up those pockets of space in front of the back four.

Using Johnson in a free hole behind the front two, rather than confined to the wing, may work in his favour too, as it has done for his ex-Boro team-mate Stewart Downing at West Ham.

It was a ploy Poyet tried last season with mixed success, yet with two strikers in front of Johnson, rather than one, it might make all the difference.

Will one of those frontmen be the third ex-Boro youngster on Sunderland’s books?

At the start of January, the final few days of the transfer window were primed for some hectic hawking of Danny Graham to any Championship suitors.

But presuming Poyet sticks with two strikers, then he needs four frontmen at his disposal.

Unless there is a particularly tempting offer, Graham stays.

It’s a huge olive branch for the 29-year-old. Even if he is currently fourth choice in the pecking order of strikers, there’s another opportunity for him to make an impact in the Premier League, when his Sunderland career had been all-but-dead.

But in an upcoming month which will decide how fraught the finale to this season is for Sunderland, Graham will have a part to play.

The Boro boys will be pivotal to Sunderland’s survival bid.