The Stupid World Cup is still rolling on, but Sunderland and Millwall have decided we are important enough to interrupt another European favourite getting eliminated early.
So, before we all watch the USA dump out the Netherlands and Bailey Wright’s Socceroos topple Leo Messi and co on Saturday evening, here’s a familiar face we’ll be seeing around lunchtime.
Where else could we start our look back at the players to have sampled Wearside and a scary corner of London than former Sunderland academy graduate-turned-captain, Mr Marmite himself, George Honeyman. Back in the before times, when Premier League was almost taken for granted, Honeyman’s name kept cropping up as one for the future, as eye-catching performances for the Under 19s and 23s were constantly churned out during the latter days of Gus Poyet (Honeyman’s debut was the last four minutes of that Bradford cup game) and Dick Advocaat’s tenures. Finally making his league debut of the club on the final day of the 2015/16 Sam Allardyce season, replacing Rees Greenwood (remember him?) in a pointless 2-2 draw away at Watford.
Many had hoped a loan spell would have followed, but once David Moyes took the reigns, it was back to the youth teams for George until, out of desperation more than tactical inspiration, Moyes threw Honeyman into the first team picture in early 2017 as the club started our slide into oblivion. Decent performances against West Brom and Hull were obviously not enough to keep Sunderland up (we won only one game Honeyman played in the Prem, though not exactly his fault) and down we went.
We all know just how grim the 17/18 Netflix relegation season was, but there’s an argument to be made that Honeyman might have been one of few bright sparks in it, as he immediately took to Championship football, and finished the year with 45 games and seven goals in all competitions. But again, down we went.
Then the Madrox era began, and with it, a change of captain; out went a traumatised John O’Shea, and the armband went to local lad Honeyman. It’s this season which I think gave Honeyman his Marmite Moniker, as if he wasn’t spectacular, he barely noticed him. I maintain he rarely put a foot wrong for us, and while he wasn’t an obvious choice, the captaincy didn’t swallow him as some might have feared. Honeyman’s also responsible for some trademarked scenes thanks to a last-minute winner away at Rochdale which, at the time, felt like it was going to send us on our way to automatic promotion. Oh dear.
Instead, we were Charltoned at Wembley again, and out of the blue, that play-off final would be Honeyman’s final appearance for his boyhood club. In a classic example of the Madrox group’s galaxy brain attitude, Honeyman was sold out of nowhere in August 2019, under the nose of Jack Ross, to Championship Hull City the same week our season was due to start. The captain that the academy had produced, shoved out the side door moments before the new campaign. Lovely stuff.
Honeyman’s time at Hull was a productive one, although he tasted relegation in his first year, the Tigers bounced straight back up as League One champions in 2021, finding himself named in the League One team of the season, and Hull’s player of the season all in one go. Following Hull’s stabilising year back in the Championship last year, some eyebrows were raised on Humberside as Honeyman was allowed to join Millwall for an undisclosed fee. Owing more to a tricky fixture list than anything else, Millwall have endured a mixed start to the season, but Honeyman’s already chipped in with a goal against Coventry, and was sent off in a cup game against Cambridge United, no doubt endearing himself to the Old Millwall Way. I expect him to score immediately on Saturday.
Another former Sunderland captain now, but one that most would be forgiven for having absolutely zero memory of. Brought to the club in the great Niall Quinn Managerial Madness that was summer 2006, experienced Irish defender Kenny Cunningham arrived from Birmingham City to provide some knowhow to our shell-shocked defence following our second Premier League record-low points total relegation in a matter of years. Cunningham’s impact was instant, as Sunderland….lost to Coventry, Birmingham, Plymouth and Southend (and Bury in the cup) within the first three weeks of the 2006/07 season.
Quinn sacked himself, appointed Roy Keane, and things picked up, as the lads began a slow but steady climb up the league. Keane gave Cunningham the captaincy, but as is the way with most things Sunderland-related, that seemed to cause the defender’s legs to implode, as an injury in late September kept him out for three weeks, before he returned in a 2-0 home win over Barnsley, in which he was subbed off just after half time. That would be the final appearance of Cunningham’s career, as he was forced into retirement as a spritely 35 years old.
Cunningham is probably more well remembered for his eight-year stay (most of which in the Premier League) at Wimbledon, but his professional career started way back in 1989 when he signed for Millwall. The defender suffered both relegation from and promotion to the First Division in his five and a half years at the Den, where he played first alongside and then under the manager who would give him his international debut, Mick McCarthy.
The career of Kenny Cunningham isn’t a particularly exciting one, just nice and boring as you’d like a defender to be, but the best stat about him is that he scored just one goal in a career of 603 games. That goal came away to Portsmouth in April 1994, meaning he played the final 13 years of his career without another goal to his name. Perfect.