ROBBIE STOCKDALE remembers what it was like to be a teenager making the breakthrough at first team level. He would clean the boots of Juninho as a teenage scholar at Middlesbrough, dreaming of the time he might join the Brazilian on the first team stage.

A little later than normal, because of Juninho’s departure and then return to Teesside a few years later, Stockdale eventually did. Through hard work and determination, the young man from Redcar made it onto the first team stage – and that is the message he has been banging at Sunderland over the last five-and-a-half years.

And, having first joined Sunderland as a coach in the youth set-up from Grimsby Town, he was as proud as anyone else at the club last weekend when five graduates of the academy system helped secure a vital 1-0 win over Hull City at first team level.

Joel Asoro scored the winner that afternoon and he had George Honeyman, Josh Maja and Ethan Robson alongside him. Lynden Gooch emerged from the bench too.

Having experienced what it is like to make the grade the grade at Premier League level with Middlesbrough and then eventually move on seven years later, when he went onto have spells at numerous clubs in lower leagues, Stockdale has stressed the challenge is to stay there.

He said: “The distance from the Under-23s room to the first team room at the Academy is maybe 50 steps. That is the hardest 50 steps any player will ever make. They think they’re closer but it is the hardest to take. You have to embrace it and once you do get there you have to stay there.

“I always remember Curtis Fleming at Middlebsrough saying to me, when we were battling for the right-back place and an Argentinian came in for the trial. Curtis said to me, ‘come on, he’s not taking our place’. That’s the mentality you’ve got to have, people always want to take your place."

Sunderland manager Chis Coleman is showing he is willing to give youth a chance, even if he is probably giving more than he would like because of the club’s predicament. In that sense, Championship football and relegation from the Premier League has helped.

Stockdale said: “If they’re good enough they would get the chance. Certainly this year we wanted them to be part of it and that drips down to the academy. So the Under-23s on Tuesday night was a young team, we’re trying to mould that into an Under-19 team if we can so they get an experience of older football.

“We want to get the Under-16s in the Under-18s and if they’re good enough the U23s. That’s the idea, filter the better players if you like and test them quicker. We’ll be sending players out on loans, too.”

Sunderland have wasted plenty of cash over the last decade on players who have not fitted into the club’s way or not lived up to their billing; so the change of direction should be applauded and welcomed now that they are in the Championship’s relegation zone.

Coleman is also keen to build a reputation for helping Sunderland by developing youth from other clubs, highlighted by his capture of Chelsea youngster Jake Clarke-Salter and how he has put him in the team straightaway.

Stockdale, who has remained a first team coach under Coleman, said: “Sometimes it can lift them to have senior players alongside them, because you feel that extra responsibility to the players next to you.

“We had Colin Cooper in yesterday, he works with the England Under-21s now and so he came in to see Jake. Jake said to him, I’ve learned more about defending playing alongside John O’Shea in two games than I have in any amount of junior football. The senior pros have all been in that situation and you really do remember those chats you have, those little bits of information.”

Stockdale certainly had that in his younger days. As a teenager in 1998 his debut was alongside Mark Schwarzer, Paul Merson and Co in Middlesbrough colours.

He said: “It was a cup game on the Tuesday night against QPR. Bryan Robson told me the day before I was in, which didn’t help me sleep! But then, and this is the high and lows, on Saturday I was cleaning the boots.

“What is important, and it was exactly the same with me and Boro, is that the younger players come into an environment with really good senior pros. Nigel Pearson was my captain, Robbie Mustoe, Steve Vickers. They lead the way and you follow, it is still the same now.”

Now Stockdale is playing a huge part in providing the link between the academy at Sunderland and the first team picture, where the likes of Honeyman are grateful to the advice they have received.

Honeyman has played more than any other player for Sunderland this season, and is determined to stay in the mix for the longer term. Sunderland might be in the throes of a relegation battle, but he is convinced that the experience can make all of the young talents stronger people and players.

He said: “I think it can make or break you. To get to this stage, though, I think you have to have a certain mental toughness anyway. There are so many young lads who come through who are all desperate to be first-team players, and you go through so many ups and downs even at a young age, that if you don't have that mental toughness then you will have probably fallen by the wayside anyway by now.

“It (the relegation fight) is not where we want to be, obviously, but once we come through it I am sure it will help the young lads in the long run.

“When you are a young player coming in, you have that excitement, and you probably don't realise the pressures. Ethan, Joel and Maj, they just want to come in and do really well – they are not focused on the consequences of defeat. That's the kind of freshness that young players can bring.”

Sunderland are up against Birmingham on Tuesday and Coleman hopes to have more new arrivals in by then. He signed winger Kazenga LuaLua on a free until the end of the season on Thursday night and is still in the hunt for at least one striker and a goalkeeper.

Derby’s Chris Martin is still on the radar, while it has emerged Hearts striker Kyle Lafferty is also under serious consideration. The Scottish Premier League club, however, are seeking a fee for the experienced Northern Ireland front-man.