David Jones: Football world taking note of Sunderland’s Academy at last

TALENT: George Honeyman in action for Sunderland U21 against Manchester United U21.
TALENT: George Honeyman in action for Sunderland U21 against Manchester United U21.
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Amidst the sinister grumblings brought on by another season of struggle in the Premier League, one or two shafts of light are starting to permeate the bar-side chatter on Wearside.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that as Gus Poyet tries to negotiate another escape from the drop, the gap from academy to first team, that at one point seemed a chasm, is starting to close.

You only have to look around the Premier League to see the incredible value growing your own can have on your club

In recent weeks there have been valuable game minutes for 19-year-old Liam Agnew (15 at Fulham) and 20-year-old George Honeyman (five at Bradford) in the FA Cup and alone you might not think this is much to get excited about, but hopefully it’s the start of things to come.

Perhaps it’s because we have been starved of youngsters for so long we are clinging illogically to a cameo here and there as evidence of progress.

But the football world is starting to take note of the work being done by Ged McNamee and his team on the windy fields of The Academy of Light.

The cream of the academy are mixing it with the country’s elite in the U21 Premier League – on Monday night you may have noticed they held a Manchester United team which included the likes of James Wilson and Tyler Blackett.

As well as Agnew and Honeyman, the Sunderland side included the wondrously named Martin Smith (though apparently not the son of, son of) and returning from injury Duncan Watmore, who no less a man than Kevin Ball once described as being “so exciting it’s frightening”.

It is upon these young men, and the exciting crop of under-18s behind them, that Sunderland’s future could rest.

I’ve spoken before in these pages about how hard it’s becoming for Sunderland to compete at the top of English football without the continued heavy investment of Ellis Short, having to trump rivals with bigger fees and even bigger wages.

And you only have to look around the Premier League to see the incredible value growing your own can have on your club.

Harry Kane is the perfect example, leading Tottenham to the brink of the Champions League with his all-action performances which have galvanised team and terraces at White Hart Lane.

“He’s one of our own,” the Spurs fans serenade him with unashamed gusto.

Southampton of course lead the way, sometimes fielding as many as five or six academy graduates in their first team, and there seems no end to their remarkable production line.

Elsewhere at Liverpool, they’ve taken a different approach, snatching Raheem Sterling from QPR as a prodigious teenager and repeating the trick to prize Jordon Ibe from Wycombe: now they look like they could be the heart of the Reds for years to come.

Along with our own Jordan Henderson of course.

Henderson and his former team-mate Jack Colback stand alone as spectacular products of the Sunderland system stretching back far too long.

They are shining examples of what can be done (and quite frankly it’s criminal Colback went up the road for free) but they are not enough.

Even casting your mind further back the names barely trip off the tongue ... Micky Gray, Michael Bridges and yes Martin Smith ... but again not enough.

Now the tide could be turning, but recent history has a warning for us.

Just eight years ago McNamee was talking with pride about an under-18s group that included Colback but two others – Nathan Luscombe and Michael Kay – were thought to be just as close to the first team: Kay now plays in the conference with Chester, while Luscombe was released by Hartlepool in May 2013.

There are no guarantees for the likes of Agnew, Honeyman and Watmore, but they can do worse than the follow the examples of Henderson and Colback – two model professionals.

With hard work, clean living and a manager brave enough to blood them in the do or die battle for Premier League points, their talent could take them right to the top.

Then we really would have something to toast on Wearside.