When Michael Ledger walked into the Academy of Light as a bright-eyed eight-year-old, his dream was to pull on the famous red and white stripes for the first team.
Fast forward 12 years and that same ambition still burns deep within the lifelong Sunderland fan.
Richard Mennear caught up with the Black Cats defender, currently out on loan at Hartlepool United, to discuss his Sunderland ambitions, life at Pools, taking inspiration from Jordan Pickford and his loan experiences in Norway.
Sitting in the corner of a dressing room at Hartlepool United’s Racecourse training base, close to the centre of Durham, Michael Ledger cuts a relaxed figure.
Enjoying life on loan at National League side Pools, relegated last season from the Football League for the first time in the club’s history, there is a determination from Ledger and the squad to get the club back where they belong.
That is Ledger’s short-term ambition, establish himself in the Pools team and be part of a successful promotion-winning side.
Longer term, the 20-year-old centre-back knows exactly where he wants to be – turning out for his beloved Sunderland week in, week out.
Consett-born Ledger is in the last year of his contract at the Stadium of Light – this is a make or break campaign in terms of his career on Wearside and whether he will be able to fulfil his ambitions at Sunderland or look to carve out a career in football elsewhere.
Ledger has a steely determination about him.
“To break into the Sunderland first-team is the dream,” said Ledger.
“I am in the last year of my contract at Sunderland, so I am pushing to get another contract.
“I can’t afford to take my foot off the gas, I have to push on and earn that contract at Sunderland.
“It is a big season for me, this. Football is a tough industry, but I am enjoying it and I am confident of having a good season here under [Pools boss] Craig Harrison.”
Sunderland boss Simon Grayson has shown he is willing to give youth a chance, with George Honeyman and Lynden Gooch the latest to be given an opportunity this season.
Ledger is a graduate of the same Sunderland academy that produced Jordan Henderson and Jordan Pickford.
Having played Under-23 football, Ledger knew he had to get out on loan to further his ambitions of breaking through into senior football, ideally at Sunderland – and he would urge others to do the same.
“It is good to see a few of the boys, George Honeyman and Lynden Gooch, now as focal points in the team,” added Ledger.
“I just have to keep hoping that one day it will be me that the manager picks.
“It has been a frustrating start for Sunderland. The Championship is a difficult league, but they have got quality in the team and, when it clicks, it will be alright. I certainly hope so.
“I really wanted to get out on loan – I felt that was what I needed.
“I had played quite a few games and wanted to step into the real world, really.”
Ledger hopes his loan moves, which include a 13-game spell at Norwegian top-flight side Viking Stavanger earlier this year, will help him follow in the footsteps of Pickford, Honeyman & Co.
Club ambassador and legend Kevin Ball keeps in touch, and Ledger values his regular phone calls and messages.
“I have been at Sunderland’s academy since the age of eight and have come right through the system and really enjoyed it,” added Ledger. “I am a Sunderland fan and my dream is still to play for Sunderland.
“You get to a point where you look at Jordan Pickford, how many loan spells did he have before he actually broke through?
“I still hope, in the long term, I will come back and play for Sunderland. I just believe that a season in this league will make me a better player, especially tactically.
“People break through at different times. I hoped, when I came back from Norway, I would break into the Sunderland team, but it didn’t happen.
“I just got on with it and came here. Now I am trying to impress the manager here, first, and then Sunderland see me doing well week in, week out.
“Kevin Ball comes down and watches training. He is always on the phone asking how things are and making sure it is alright. Any concerns and I can give him a ring.
“He has been to a couple of games at The Vic – it is great to have that support.”
Ledger is yet to lose in a Pools shirt, the defender having played four games and been on the winning side against Maidstone, Dagenham & Redbridge and Leyton Orient, plus a draw at Wrexham.
He hasn’t, though, featured since September 16, a hamstring injury keeping him out, but fit again now, he hopes to be in contention for tomorrow’s trip to Solihull Moors.
How different is life at Pools, 15th in the National League, to Sunderland’s academy?
“I grew up at the Academy of Light with Sunderland and the facilities there you can take for granted,” said Ledger. “It is back to basics here, but the club works really well. Iit is different from the Under-23s, more challenging against senior players, training and turning out on a Saturday.
“I get a great buzz from it – I am loving my time here.
“It was frustrating coming to play and then getting an injury setback, but these things happen and the lads here have been great.
“They have all made me feel really welcome – the manager, coaching staff and players. They have a lot of quality for this league.
“We are all hungry to get out of this league – this is a Football League club.
“You can see how tight the league is ... if we get on a good run we can be up there.
“Maybe it was a confidence thing at the start of the season (Pools’ poor run). When we beat Maidstone 3-1 on my debut, there was a relief. It lifted a lot of pressure from the staff and players.
“We have a good team and staff and are well placed for a good season.”
Ledger is determined to help Pools back into the Football League, knowing it will help him achieve his dream of earning a new deal at Sunderland and being one step closer to playing for his boyhood club.
When most 20-year-olds move away from home for the first time, they don’t tend to move to a different country.
But that’s exactly what Black Cats defender Michael Ledger did to broaden his football horizons and boost his chances of first-team football at Sunderland.
The promising centre-back played every minute for Viking Stavanger in the Norwegian top flight during his 13-game spell, catching the eye of scouts.
Ledger impressed Viking boss Ian Burchnall during his loan spell, which saw him play 1,170 first-team minutes – learning the hard way in a struggling side.
“I was looking to get out on loan in the January window,” revealed Ledger.
“A few options fell at the final hurdle and then my agent just said ‘did you know the European window is still open and how do you fancy Norway?’
“I said ‘book me a flight and I’m there’.
“It was an English coach – that helped a lot – and I clicked straight away.
“They put me up in my own flat, the standard of football was good, it was really professional. We struggled a bit with a young team, but, looking back, that was a good thing for me – I learned the hard way.
“There was some challenging times, but those challenges make you stronger. I learned an awful lot and am now reaping the rewards.”
Ledger, now on loan at National League side Hartlepool United, had the chance to go back to Norway, but he wanted to fight for his place under new SAFC boss Simon Grayson.
“I came back from Norway and went straight into pre-season at Sunderland, but it didn’t really go to plan,” aded Ledger.
“I went away with the first team but didn’t get much game time. I had a sit down with the coaching staff and said I want to get back out on loan somewhere because I’d had that taste of first-team football and I wanted to continue.
“The coaching staff said ‘Hartlepool are interested’, I looked at the fixtures and there were so many – just what I needed – a physical test and I was at a stage where I needed to step outside of my comfort zone.
“I would have gone anywhere on loan, as you can see from Norway.”