LEE JOHNSON has backed Ross Stewart to go on to play in the Premier League after revealing the Scottish striker turned down offers from the Championship in order to play for Sunderland.

Stewart has been one of the stars of Sunderland’s season so far, with his seven goals from the opening nine league games helping propel the Black Cats three points clear at the top of the League One table.

The 25-year-old was completely unheralded when he moved to Wearside from Scottish side Ross County in January, and remained on the fringe of things in the second half of last season when a combination of a hamstring problem and the form of his team-mate, Charlie Wyke, limited his opportunities in the first team.

He has been thrust into the limelight this term though, and having turned down offers from the Championship in order to move to Sunderland at the start of the year, Johnson is confident it will not be long before Stewart is plying his trade in England’s top two divisions.

“For me, he is a top-ten Championship player at least, with the potential to play in the Premier League as well,” said the Black Cats boss, ahead of Saturday’s game with Portsmouth at Fratton Park.

“I know Ross turned down Championship moves to come to us. Probably the fact that he’d had a hamstring injury kept him under the radar. We didn’t think it was as bad a hamstring injury as it actually was in the end, which was a bit frustrating, but in the end, the club made the decision that it (signing him) was the right thing to do.”

Given his performances in the first two months of the season, Stewart currently finds himself touted as a potential Scotland international in the not-too-distant future.

That is quite some change from the situation he found himself in five years ago, when he was plying his trade with Albion Rovers after coming through the Scottish junior ranks with Ardeer Thistle and Kilwinning Rangers.

It has reported that Albion were only able to afford Stewart’s £1,500 transfer fee when the forward’s father stepped in to help, and while he progressed to play with St Mirren and Ross County, he remained somewhat under the radar before heading to Wearside.

Johnson had been aware of him for a while though, with his initial interest having been perked when he was on the verge of taking over at a Championship club prior to agreeing to join Sunderland.

“How did he get flagged? It was my very good friend Brian McDermott,” he explained. “I was actually pretty close to taking another job, and Brian wanted to work very closely with me at the time. It was a Championship role, and we were talking about potential players that might go in.

“He’s a really good football man and has a really good eye. He was at Arsenal for a long time as their chief European scout. We had a good watch of him (Stewart) for somebody else.

“At that point, he’s then on the radar. Then, it goes through the Sunderland process. This will happen with ten or 15 different players, then the discussions start with Kristjaan Speakman and we look into the data and things in more depth. That was where it originally came from.”

Sunderland signed Stewart at the end of the January transfer window, and while Johnson insists he was not recruited as a direct replacement for Wyke, there was always a degree of transition planning involved in the deal.

Wyke was in the final six months of his contract when Stewart was signed, and while Sunderland were always going to offer their leading scorer a new deal, there was an awareness that other clubs were circling with the kind of financial clout that eventually resulted in Wyke leaving to join Wigan.

“It wasn’t necessarily a succession plan for Charlie because they could have played together, but of course it was part of the thinking because it has to be,” said Johnson. “To have height in my teams is pretty important because I’m naturally attracted to those (Elliot) Embleton, (Alex) Pritchard, (Aiden) McGeady, (Lynden) Gooch type players with low centres of gravity who are ball-carriers and ball-manipulators.

“I think Ross’ journey excited me as well. He’s come up through the juniors in Scotland and progressed bit by bit. He was a little bit of a late developer, which I always like in a player because that physicality comes later. I think Ross will end up playing until he’s 36 or 37 quite comfortably with his agility, if he stays clear of injury.”