IT TOOK Adam Johnson three years to make the leap from teenage prospect to first-team regular.
After making his debut for then Premier League club Middlesbrough aged just 17, Johnson required the educational experience of loan spells at Leeds (under then assistant manager Gus Poyet) and Watford before he emerged as one of the hottest young talents in the country at the Riverside.
Johnson believes Sunderland team-mate Connor Wickham has just completed a similar journey.
Wickham, who finally agreed a new four-year contract at the Stadium of Light this week, arrived at Sunderland in 2011 for big money and a big reputation.
But he was still only 18.
The England Under-21 international needed to continue his footballing development outside the high-pressure stakes of the Premier League; reaping the rewards from loan spells at Sheffield Wednesday (twice) and Leeds.
When he returned from Leeds last March, Wickham made the pivotal impact on Sunderland’s survival bid and has started all bar one of the Black Cats’ top flight outings this season.
Johnson told the Echo: “He’d not been long here before I got here, and I think he’s just matured really.
“I made my debut when I was 17 and I think it wasn’t until I was 20, that I was ready to play every week.
“I probably thought I was ready, but when you look back, I just wasn’t.
“That’s why you go out on loan.
“When I came back from a loan at Watford, everything clicked for some reason.
“It’s the same for Connor. He went away on loan last season and when he came back at the end, things started to go right for him and he started to become the player we knew he could be.
“It just takes a bit of time with young lads. (The contract) has taken a bit of time and I suppose that the fans have been getting a bit frustrated, but it was just a matter of time and waiting.
“He was always going to do what was best for him.”
Johnson and Wickham have begun to look more at home in the respective wide roles in Sunderland’s front three over recent games, yet that hasn’t corresponded with an upturn in goals.
Sunderland have netted just once in their last four outings, with the Black Cats facing a tough challenge against fourth-placed West Ham at the Stadium of Light this weekend.
But, despite the lack of goals, Johnson has been encouraged by the recent signs from Poyet’s side, who continue to be solid, if unspectacular.
“The whole team is starting to build an understanding, playing the ball forwards and, just in general, we look like a side who know our roles,” he added.
“For three 0-0s, I think we’ve played some good football and looked good, particularly against Liverpool and Leicester, when we looked comfortable for most of the game.
“That’s really important.
“I felt good, especially in the Leicester game and against Chelsea, and even better against Liverpool, to be honest.
“I had a little injury setback on the Wednesday before the Man City game, which was disappointing. But it probably did me good because I went into the Liverpool game feeling a bit more fresh.
“I think it’s helped me in the last two or three games though, because the team seems to have clicked and we’ve managed to get on the ball.”