Onuoha is brilliant - on and off the field

On-loan-defender has found a warm welcome in the Stadium of Light.

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On-loan-defender has found a warm welcome in the Stadium of Light, reports Andy Mitten

Sunderland's on-loan defender Nedum Onuoha has faced a life of challenges. The family of the Nigeria -born 24-year-old - who is excelling on a year-long deal from Manchester City - moved to Manchester in search of a better life when he was five. They did not settle into a salubrious area and the player known as 'Chief' went to primary school in Miles Platting, one of the most deprived areas of the city.

Onuoha was told that education was not to be squandered and encouraged to work hard. He proved such an outstanding student that he won a place at the William Hulme Grammar School aged 11.

Onuoha's excellence continued, not just academically where he achieved eight 'A' and two 'B' grades at GCSE, but also in sport. As well as playing football, where his pace alerted Manchester City scouts, he joined Trafford Athletic Club, peaking with a 100 metres personal best of 10.9 seconds. By 14, Onuoha was the second fastest sprinter for his age in Great Britain and a career in top-level athletics would have followed had he not chosen football.

That decision came when City offered him a Youth Training Scheme contract at 16. Almost every professional club awards around 15 YTS contracts to their best youngsters each summer and almost every budding professional relinquishes their studies as they begin full-time training. Onuoha, however, continued to study and earned three grade As at A-level in maths, business studies and IT. Such was his intelligence and passion for learning, former City manager Stuart Pearce joked that he used to split the atom in his spare time. Teammates have long noted his intelligence for less cerebral matters, like knowing what time training starts the following day.

Onuoha was awarded his full City debut by then manager Kevin Keegan, aged just 17, in 2004. Although he'd progressed through the youth ranks playing at centre half, he was used more as a right back in the first team. The idea was that he would improve his passing, the only questionable part of his game. Physically strong, blessed with pace and mentally tough, City's coaches were convinced Onuoha could become a mainstay for the team he'd grown up supporting. Injuries and changes in management were to prove otherwise.

Onuoha made 100 appearances for the Blues in five seasons and while he played for several prolonged spells, he failed to make the expected breakthrough. The revolving door of managers at City also saw him suffer, with subsequent bosses undecided whether to play him at right back, centre half, if at all.

A regular for England under 21s since 2005, he was praised for his conduct following racist provocation from Serbia fans at the 2007 U21 European Championships. With his mother Anthonia watching (she has been at all of his games since the age of 14), Onuoha informed the referee about the vile monkey chants.

Although a mainstay at Under 21 level, he never followed team mate Micah Richards into the full national side. That left him with the possibility of choosing Nigeria, an option he said he would consider exercising for the 2010 World Cup. The phone call never came, but he's recently been in talks about playing for Nigeria at senior level.

Back at City and with manager Mark Hughes an admirer, Onuoha signed a five-year contract in 2009, but Hughes's replacement Roberto Mancini used him more sparingly, the Italian preferring more technically gifted defenders. With just five league starts last season after 20 in 2008/09, the loan move to Sunderland was a good fit for both parties.

Onuoha has thrived at the Stadium of Light, with only the imperious Jordan Henderson making more than his 19 league starts from the Black Cats 21 games this season. Onuoha even managed a goal away at champions Chelsea in a 3-0 victory and had it not been for a recent hamstring injury, he could have been an ever present. He's expected to return for this weekend's FA Cup game against Notts County.

With Sunderland boss Steve Bruce hoping to secure the defender in a permanent £6 million deal, Onuoha's future could be away from City, yet with the Blues still keeping a tab on him in every game, that's their choice. Either way, Onuoha's stock has improved and his future is a bright one, his performances now as consistently bright as his brilliant mind.