Often doubted, sometimes derided, always determined. Stuart Rayner on Danny Graham’s emergence as a £5m striker.
THINGS have rarely come easy for Danny Graham in his career. With the latest chapter threatening to be the most difficult, it is probably no bad thing.
Most Premier League footballers grow up in cosseted, comfortable environments.
In a laudable but occasionally misguided drive for excellence, academies have become factories churning out players who hone their skills wearing the best kit on pristine, bowling-green pitches (indoor when needs be).
Some will be millionaires before they are out of their teens, all will be waited on hand and foot to ensure none of their precious energy is wasted on menial, time-consuming tasks like changing a light bulb.
They are engulfed by all manner of hangers-on keen to tell them at every available opportunity how great they are.
Little wonder it produces its fair share of dysfunctional individuals, little boys lost when dipping their toe in the real world.
Graham’s background has been slightly different, and all the better for it.
He spent time at Middlesbrough’s academy, but not before playing non-league football at Chester-le-Street.
Maybe it was the perfect blend of top-level coaching with a bit of real-life perspective.
If Graham thought he had made it when he swapped Northern League for Premier League, it did not turn out that way.
He only started one league game for Boro, spending most of his time on loan lower down the chain.
It seemed to build a slightly defensive mentality, sensing doubters at every corner and using them as motivation.
Last season, Graham finally proved himself as a Premier League goalscorer – with 12 top-flight goals – but he arrives at the Stadium of Light with new doubts to dispel.
This time they are over his commitment to a cause he belittled in the past.
Disparaging historical remarks to a fanzine have come back to bite him. Some Sunderland fans – the ones who believe Michael Chopra squared rather than shoot in a 2009 Tyne-Wear derby because he grew up a Newcastle fan – think Graham will not try his hardest for a club he once jokingly derided.
The pressure will therefore be on when he makes his expected debut at Reading today.
Sunderland’s media strategy – limiting him to an official club interview which never broached the big subject and two sentences on Sky Sports News which did – means Graham has had little opportunity to reassure the doubters, so it was left to his manager yesterday.
Martin O’Neill said: “I haven’t talked to him often enough about his football journey, but other people have told me about him and you get the feeling he has had to fight all the way.
“He was told he was not good enough to play in the leagues.
“He dropped down, went to Carlisle (on loan, in League One), started to do okay and found his feet at Watford (in the Championship), and moved on and had a great season at Swansea, which stood him in good stead.
“He is not easily put off by someone telling him he can’t do something. I have no doubts he will score goals and prove a great buy.”
The lure of home may have decided his destination, but it was a lack of opportunities which persuaded Graham to cut ties with South Wales.
Since Michael Laudrup replaced Brendan Rodgers in the summer, the Gateshead-born player has found himself with the unenviable tag of being an “impact player.”
It is one which has fallen on the shoulders of another English striker playing today, namely Reading’s Adam Le Fondre (pictured right).
The 26-year-old has also worked his way up through the lower leagues and although he is making a name for himself this season – never more so than with two late goals at home to Chelsea on Wednesday – in some respects he is his own worst enemy.
Le Fondre has scored six from the bench this season – as many as anyone in Premier League history.
It raises the dilemma of whether he is best utilised as a substitute.
O’Neill not only understands the frustration of Graham and Le Fondre, he feels it is to be encouraged.
He added: “If you looked at (Edin) Džeko for instance at Manchester City, he’s always said every time he’s come off the bench and scored ‘I want to start the game’ and I would think that is the general view of players. I don’t think anyone really wants to think their role is starting on the bench.
“Danny played less (for Swansea) this season than he played last season. He had a run of games and a bit of confidence goingand was scoring goals.
“Michu has come in, scored goals early on and he is a very, very fine player indeed.
“Danny still felt he could play with him but his manager was maybe not so sure, but I don’t think he’s lost confidence.”