Black Cats academy has something to shout about

TURN the clock back three or four years, and new England star Jordan Henderson was far from the hottest property at the Academy of Light.

Hampered by growth problems, Henderson lagged behind the likes of Martyn Waghorn, Jack Colback and Michael Kay who were leading the charge from that year's batch.

It wasn't even certain that the Herrington-born midfielder would be kept on at the club until he was eventually rewarded with the last of the apprenticeship contracts.

Attitude and desire coupled with the medical opinion that Henderson would grow into a decent athletic specimen, seem to have ultimately convinced Sunderland that he was worthy of keeping.

That patience to keep Henderson at the club he first joined at seven soon began to pay off.

By the time he began training on a full-time basis in a bid to earn a professional contract, Henderson started to make the first steps on a staggering period of progress, culminating in last night's bow for his country.

But Henderson's rapid development has not come as such a surprise for Sunderland Academy manager Ged McNamee.

In his five years at the helm of Sunderland's youth system, McNamee has developed individual programmes to ensure players come good when they enter the professional game rather than being world-beaters in their early-teens.

McNamee said: "At the age of 15 to 16, there were a few question marks over Jordan.

"He always had ability. That was there from an early age. But he had a lot of growth spurts which stunted his progress to a degree.

"Right up to the age of 16 when it was decision time. Jordan was the last one who came in.

"But the main thing that shone through from Jordan was he just wanted an opportunity.

"We did a lot of investigations and testing with him.

"The physios had indicated that he was going through a growth spurt, and he would come out the other end.

"It's hard to predict what will happen, but we're really pleased we did give him that chance.

"We offered the likes of Waghorn and Colback scholarships before Jordan. Physically, they were ahead of Jordan.

"When he came in full-time, we were trying to protect him because, from a physical aspect, he was behind some of the other boys.

"But he was reluctant to be put on a lesser programme. He wanted to be with the rest of the lads and fight his corner.

"That proved to us his belief that he could cope with it.

"He really started to come on then, and developed on a daily basis.

"But it shows it is a long-term process and sometimes you have to wait for certain players.

"When he broke into the first-team, it was the end of a 10-year programme."

McNamee concedes Henderson's career was boosted by being involved with a team that reached the semi-finals of the 2007 FA Youth Cup and won the U18s North League.

Waghorn, in particular, served as a catalyst to Henderson's challenge for a first-team spot after Roy Keane handed him a shock debut in the 2007 Boxing Day defeat to Manchester United.

Within a year, Henderson had joined Waghorn in the first-team picture – making his debut as a half-time sub in the 5-0 rout at Chelsea – before a three-month loan spell at Coventry earned him a first taste of regular first-team football.

"The majority of the group Jordan was with had been together from a very young age," he said.

"They all had a really good bond and they were all pushing each other to play in the first team.

"Waghorn was the first and the lads were over the moon for that.

"But Jordan wanted to follow him very quickly.

"He was pleased for Martyn, but he wanted to be the next.

"When Roy came to the club, it was apparent early on that he was very supportive of the youth.

"He gave the likes of Waghorn, Jordan, Michael Kay, Micky Liddle and Nathan Luscombe an opportunity to be in and around the first-team.

"That was brilliant for them and for the academy.

"You can have the ability but you need to be given the opportunity. Roy did that.

"When Steve came, it wasn't long before he was getting quite a few enquiries about these young players to go out on loan.

"He knew it was a decent bunch and he brought them into the squad and saw their ability himself."