Flying the Flag for Sunderland in Russia

Following the conclusion of the 2017/18 English football season, Sunderland fans will be happy to look ahead to the World Cup.

With England having qualified for the 2018 World Cup, comfortably topping their group, there is a quiet optimism the Three Lions can improve on their recent international tournament results. There is a good mix of youth and experience in the squad and Gareth Southgate has not been afraid to give younger players a chance on the biggest stage of them all.

There are two former Sunderland academy players who look set to start for England in the first match of the World Cup against Tunisia and they offer the perfect blend of youth and experience.

Having excelled for Sunderland in the 2016/17 Premier League campaign, there was a huge amount of interest shown in Jordan Pickford. The goalkeeper started life with the Black Cats academy and following loan spells to several clubs between 2012 and 2016, Pickford became the Sunderland number one.

Despite the season ending in disappointment for Sunderland, Pickford’s performances were earning him praise around the Premier League. Interest from other clubs soon followed and Everton signed the keeper on the 15th June 2017 for an initial fee of £25 million.

Having began his career with the Sunderland academy at the age of eight and worked his way through the ranks at the Stadium of Light, Pickford became the most expensive British goalkeeper in history. The 24 year old was also the second biggest signing in the history of Everton Football Club, adding to the pressure placed upon his shoulders.

Pickford responded superbly and having performed well for Everton in a tough season for the club, was selected to play for the England team in an away match against the Netherlands. England won the match 1-0 and BBC Football Focus pundits Rachel Brown-Finnis and Shay Given highlighted how good Pickford was with the ball at his feet, a vital component of the modern day goalkeeper.

Pickford is not the first player to come through the Sunderland Academy and represent his country. Michael Gray represented England at full senior level and both Michael Bridges and Jack Colback have played for England at Under-21 and Under-20 level respectively.

However, Pickford will be lining up in the summer with arguably the greatest product the Sunderland academy has every produced when he plays alongside Jordan Henderson.

Arsenal vs Sunderland - (CC BY 2.0) By wonker

The Liverpool captain has enjoyed a tremendous season at Anfield and has reached the Champions League final. If it wasn’t for the fact that Manchester City were so dominant in the league, Henderson may have been challenging for a Champions League and Premier League double under the guidance of Jurgen Klopp. However, Pep Guardiola’s City team proved to be too strong in the domestic league. A recent blog post by Betway considers them to be one of the best ever Premier League squads, a sentiment shared by many others in the world of football.

Henderson, much like Pickford, joined the Sunderland youth system when he was eight and signed his first professional contract with the club ten years later. He made his debut as a substitute against Chelsea the same year and broke into the first team in the 2009/10 campaign.

In 2011, Henderson was recognised by FIFA as being one of 13 young players to watch that year and having won the Sunderland Young Player of the Year award for the second time, he joined Liverpool for a fee approaching £20 million.

The review on the FIFA website in 2011 read, ‘Composed, athletic and powerful, Henderson has been hailed as “the best young British footballer there is” by his Sunderland manager, Steve Bruce.’

High praise indeed but in his seven years at Liverpool, Henderson has proved his previous manager right and under Klopp this season, he has been the driving force in midfield. Some onlookers questioned whether Henderson was not good enough to play for Liverpool but he has proved the doubters wrong with some tremendous displays in the 2017/18 campaign. The question is, can Henderson reproduce his club form with his country at the 2018 World Cup?

Henderson has made 38 appearances for England, the first of which came on the 21st November 2010 in a friendly against France. The energetic midfielder was still a Sunderland player at the time and has since represented England at three major international tournaments.

Despite leaving Sunderland at an early age, Henderson remains a fan of the club and was seen in the Sunderland fans at the 2014 League Cup final supporting his former club.

Sunderland supporters are sure to be looking on with pride as both Henderson and Pickford take to the field for England at the 2018 World Cup.