There used to be a very uncomplimentary song we once sang about the amount of players we would sell to Stoke, which we won’t repeat here, but my word, the late 2000s through to the 2010s were a golden age for players swapping red and white shirts. By my count, there were ten players who played for both clubs from 2005-2015 alone, and 33 if you go back to the late 60s. I didn’t go any further back than that, because every professional footballer who played in the 1950s was likely to be called Alf Winterbottom or Charlie Smith, and there isn’t a sane person on the planet who has the time to dig that deep.
So with that in mind, let’s have a look at someone from our recent history, and another from our lovely sojourn to the third tier, both of whom took in the sights and the sounds of Wearside and the Potteries in their careers.
Yes, for Brazil he should definitely have played, it’s friend of Wise Men Say pod and sufferer of thousands of Ask Frankie-isms, Danny Collins. If you think of the Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane era of Sunderland (and very much block out how the former ended), sort of players you’re likely to think of are Danny Collins, Dean Whitehead and Liam Lawrence, all of whom went on to play for Stoke directly after their time with Sunderland. Weird.
Collins was picked up by McCarthy as a bargain buy of just £140k from Chester City back in 2004, as a versatile defender who could player either at centreback or leftback. Initially brought in to bulk up the a defence, providing competition for the likes of George McCartney and club captain Gary Breen, Collins’ first season saw the club win promotion back to the Premier League, although the less said about that year in the top flight, the better.
However, as bad as that season was for Sunderland, it seemed to steel Collins’ resolve as he found himself to be a key member of Roy Keane’s squad once the Irishman took over from Niall Quinn’s hilarious and disastrous turn as manager in 2006. Along with the likes of Nyron Nosworthy, Whitehead, Grant Leadbitter and Daryl Murphy, Collins was part of a core of players who appeared to be determined to prove themselves as better than the catastrophe of the year before as they led the Lads to an incredible Championship title at the first time of asking.
Back in the Premier League and while you’d be forgiven for thinking that some of the promotion winners would be phased out of the squad, Collins stepped up his game yet again. In his first two years back in the big time, he only missed five league games, winning the fan’s Player of the Year award in both 2008 and 2009, also being named the North East Player of the Year in the latter. So to say that fans were perplexed when Steve Bruce took charge of his first season on Wearside, and the club accepted a bit of £2.75m for Collins from Stoke that same year, would be doing it a major injustice.
But there he went, having made over 150 club appearances in total, to Stoke, after the 2009/10 had already started – Collins had even started all three of Sunderland’s opening Premier League fixtures that season. Bizarre.
The Welsh international’s time at Stoke was one of ups and downs, as the occasional spell as first choice at either left back or centre back was frequently interrupted by the inclusion of fellow former/future Sunderland alumni, Danny Higginbotham and, nightmarishly, Marc Wilson. Such was the strange competition at the Britannia that only two years after signing, Collins found himself omitted from Tony Pulis’ Premier League squad, and ultimately sent out on loan to Ipswich in 2011. A much more profitable time was had in Suffolk, as Collins made 16 appearances, and even helped himself to three goals, before returning to Stoke in January 2012.
The period of December 2011 to March 2012 is a truly insane one for any footballer’s career here, as Collins went from playing against Barnsley and Derby for Ipswich, to making appearances away to Crawley and Valencia back with Stoke, to then line up against Doncaster on loan at West Ham, just lovely stuff. The loan to West Ham saw Collins score on his debut against Leeds as the Hammers eventually got promoted back to the Premier League via the playoffs under Big Sam.
Finally, after three bizarre years, Collins was allowed to leave Stoke, signing for Nottingham Forest, where he stayed for another three years, captaining the club throughout his stay. Upon leaving Forest in 2015, Collins spent a year with Rotherham United, before closing out his career with a three-year spell at Grimsby Town. Since retiring, you can of course find Danny providing the co-commentary with another former voice of Wise Men Say, Frankie Francis for SAFC.com. One day he’ll give us all a the answer we want to hear about that derby game with Michael Chopra.
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Ah Josh Maja. The smallest glimmer of hope under Chris Coleman. The main reason to enjoy the first few months of league one. The poster child for everything wrong with the Madrox era. Maja came through the Academy of Light and into the first team in our truly horrific 2017/18 Championship season, having previously gone through the youth setups at Crystal Palace, Fulham and Manchester City. The striker was blessed with an incredible talent for finishing; a trademark we’d come to love, from his first goal all through his half a season in League One, was a simple touch in the box, turn, and pass into the net. Simply put, you could tell he’d been watching Jermain Defoe on the training pitch.
Maja made his mark on the Sunderland first team on 16th December 2017, as Coleman’s team hilariously managed to beat promotion favourites Fulham 1-0, one day shy of us going a full calendar year without a win at the Stadium of Light. That would prove to be the striker’s only goal of the season as Sunderland whimpered to a bottom-placed finish in the second tier, but League One saw Maja display the potential he had to be a formidable finisher.
All in all, Maja made 30 appearances for Sunderland between August 2018 and January 2019, and scored an impressive 16 times along the way, 15 of those goals coming in the league. Maja was simply a class above the league and represented our best chance of getting out of it; simply put, had Maja stayed, Sunderland would have gotten promoted one way or another in 2019. So naturally, when a decision had to be made about whether we should offer him a contract or dick around a bit, the Madrox regime chose the latter, tried to mess Maja about in public and ultimately sold him to Bordeaux to help with the debt we owed for Wahbi Khazri. Sunderland signed Will Grigg, the wheels came off entirely and we lost to Charlton in the play offs. Hoorah.
Since leaving Sunderland, Maja’s had a strange time of it, being limited to a supporting role at Bordeaux, though still managing 9 goals in only 20 league starts (plus 27 sub appearances), and making his international debut with Nigeria. A loan spell to the Premier League came out of the blue in February 2021 as Maja returned to Fulham, getting a brace in only his second game, against Everton, with a further goal coming away to Arsenal, but as Fulham sealed their customary relegation, back to France he went.
Last season, with Maja struggling to make any impact on the Bordeaux first team, he was loaned out to Stoke, arriving in the January 2022 transfer window. The spell was far from fruitful, as Michael O’Neill’s inconsistent side struggled for form, and finished 13 points away from the play offs. Maja only managed two goals, one against Wigan in the cup on his debut, and another 7 days later in a 2-2 draw with eventual play off winners Nottingham Forest.
Back to France he went again, as his parent club imploded, being relegated to the second tier, and, thanks to financial issues, very nearly being demoted again, only being saved by an appeal. So, 3 and a half years on from his exit from a shambles of a club languishing in a division it should never have been in, Maja has unfortunately found himself in more or less the same situation, but this time in France, which at least has better weather.
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