It’s a debate football fans love having. Who’s your favourite player of all time? There are, of course, many ways of interpreting the question, which is partly why is sparks such rich discourse, but in terms of favourite Sunderland player of all time there are the usual suspects that crop up. Charlie Hurley, Bobby Kerr, Jimmy Montgomery, Niall Quinn, Declan John, Jermain Defoe, Kevin Phillips… all names that trip off the tongue, and no exceptions. As someone of now the ripe old age of 37, I was in my teens and had a season ticket to watch the Quinn-Phillips relationship blossom, and what a beautiful thing it was. Two fine individual players who became unstoppable when paired together.
But hand on heart neither really holds the sort of hero status in my mind that a certain Donald Ralph Goodman does. Strange choice? That’s sort of my point. On the face of it, it seems a leftfield selection (and not in a cutting-in-on-his-favoured-right Allan Johnston sort of way). Goodman signed for the club in December 1991 for £900k, at the time a record fee. It wasn’t until a year or so later that my dad was taking me to games regularly and he quickly became my favourite player. Firstly, he looked cool with his Brylcreemed curls of hair and moustache, probably the only man other than Tom Selleck to successfully pull off that look, and it made him stand out alongside teammates who could easily have doubled up as Kwik Fit fitters. He was also a goalscorer, and who doesn’t love one of those?
His record at the club was a modest 40 goals in 116 appearances, just shy of a goal every three games, but to the eight-year-old me it seemed like he scored every week. He was superhuman in my eyes; strong, fast, fresh from the fight… basically all the things that Bonnie Tyler was looking for in a hero but also really good in the air. It didn’t matter to me that as a team we were largely rubbish at the time, it was when I started to fall in love with the club and Goodman was the Big Bad Adonis at the heart of it.
Such was my love of Goodman, and as a budding artist, I jumped at the chance to draw a picture of my favourite player as part of a competition run by short-lived Sunderland magazine Kick Off. The prize list was lengthy: a year’s subscription to the magazine, a signed ball from the first team squad, tickets to a match, a magnetic football game and… the chance to meet your favourite player.
I depicted Don in the foreground having just scored a hat-trick in a 5-0 victory over Newcastle. In the background a tearful Kevin Keegan sobbed into a spotty hankerchief while another Sunderland player (unidentifed but potentially Phil Gray) knocked in another goal, presumable the fifth, past a snoozing Pavel Srníček. Not content with merely hammering our local rivals in a footballing sense, Don saw it best to humiliate the opposition further by verbally declaring himself, by way of a speech bubble, a “hat-trick hero”.
I sent in my picture and waited for a response. Low and behold the call came and victory was mine. I was so overwhelmed at the prospect of meeting my hero (as well as being the proud owner of a magnetic football game) that I could barely speak but my parents managed to relay the message that yes, I’d like to meet Don Goodman.
Luckily when the big day came, I’d rediscovered my voice and was ready to meet Don on the pitch at Roker Park. He kept me waiting though and his late arrival was due to, and I quote, him “doing his hair”. Of course it made sense, he didn’t just roll out of bed with his hair looking that good. I don’t remember many details about the rest of the day, only that he was friendly, polite and smelt of something I later found out was called aftershave. The magazine went bust shortly after so I didn’t get my year’s subscription, nor did I receive a signed ball, but my hero had lived up to expectations and that was all I really needed (plus the magnetic game was surprisingly addictive).
Now we find ourselves in another period of our history, like that one, that is largely unedifying and will be forgotten by most. The players making up this squad, even if this season we finally do achieve promotion, are unlikely to feature in many people’s lists of “favourite ever player”. But for young Sunderland fans just starting out on their own personal journey with the club, they could well bestow upon the likes of Ross Stewart or Lyndon Gooch, the same kind of hero status that I did with Goodman. It’s time now for those players to make heroes of themselves and although their achievements might be considered flimsy in comparison to the likes of Kerr or Quinn, in the eyes of those young fans watching it would be in no way diminished.