It seems fitting that the first of these articles to be done now that the Tony Mowbray era is alive and kicking is for our first encounter with our friends from down the road. It’s time for the derby that is most definitely not a derby as the Lads head to Middlesbrough on Monday night.
There have been enough players to have played for both Sunderland and Middlesbrough over the years to build a to-scale human representation of the transporter bridge. This proves two things: first, that the two clubs are geographically fairly close, and back when all this were fields, that was quite handy for players looking to move from the two cities without having to travel thousands of miles, and second, that it really, definitely is not a derby.
An interesting point to note is that following on from our hilarious previous stay in the Championship, Boro took on a batch of our players who were responsible for/traumatised by our glorious relegation. Since that season, Ashley Fletcher, Paddy McNair and Duncan Watmore have all turned out for Middlesbrough, and they managed to not get relegated in the process, so that’s nice.
Look, there’s not many Sunderland fans who need a daft article to tell them all about Brian Clough, but it’s been rare in recent years that we get to talk about someone who was truly an exceptional footballer, so let’s indulge, even if we’re going back to the pre-da era.
Brian Clough was a Boro boy, born and bred, and came through their youth ranks in the 50s, making his debut in the 55/56 season. That year the forward netted a promising three goals in 9 games, which would prove to be the only season in his entire career (barring a brief attempt to come back from the ultimately career ending injury he suffered a decade later) where Clough would score fewer than 20 goals.
The stats are simply incredible, as in his second year as a professional, aged only 20 years old, Clough hit 38 in 41 appearances in the Second Division for his hometown club. Boro were never quite able to make the jump up into the First Division, and so, after a record which read as 222 games, 204 goals in all competitions, Clough handed in a transfer request and made a £55k move to Sunderland in July 1961.
Clough hit the ground running immediately in red and white stripes, as in his debut season for Sunderland he helped himself to another 29 goals in only 34 appearances; following this up with 24 in 24 in his second year. Unfortunately, tragedy then struck when in a game against Bury on Boxing Day 1962, Clough clattered into Bury’s keeper and tore his medial and cruciate knee ligaments. Those sorts of injuries still see a player out for around 6 months today, 60 years ago that was essentially the tolling of the bell on a player’s career. Clough missed the entirety of the 63/64 season, where typically the club won promotion to the First Division without him. Although he did manage to make a comeback nearly two years later, Clough was limited to just 3 further appearances, scoring one goal (the summation of his top flight career), before he was ultimately defeated by the severity of injury and retired in 1964, aged 29.
The managerial career Clough embarked upon is the stuff of legends, bouncing around from middling spells with Hartlepools (note the S), Derby, Brighton and, infamously, Leeds, before arriving at Nottingham Forest in 1975. In the 18 years Clough spent at Forest, he won the First Division, the Leage Cup four times, and, of course, the European Cup twice.
Without doubt one of the greatest English managers of all time, it’s a crime that he never ended up at the reigns of the national team. If your granda/great granda supported the lads during Clough’s day at Roker Park, I guarantee he was one of their very favourite players, a true great of the yester years of the game, and one who, if the planets had aligned differently, could’ve led Sunderland to glory that we’d all still be harking on about now.
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That’s right, back down to reality immediately. From the sublime to the utterly ridiculous. A fully fledged member of the 17/18 Netflix horror show that saw Sunderland plummet to League One, it’s perpetually sad and constantly terrified goalkeeper, Jason Steele. Another Boro boy, and one to tip the scales back over to how this fixture might actually be a derby, given his performances for Sunderland, Steele started his career on Teesside, progressing through their youth academy in 2007 and going on to make 131 appearances in his eight-year stay in their first team. What’s incredible about that stat is that all of those appearances were in the Championship, and at no point in that stretch did Middlesbrough get relegated.
If anything, Steele’s say at Boro was just nice and boring, they didn’t really bother the promotion spots, nor did they worry about relegation either. They just had the uneventful, dull existence Sunderland fans were striving for upon our last arrival in the second tier. Steele eventually moved on to Blackburn in 2014 and spent three years as their number one keeper, which he then crowned with relegation to League One in 2017 (despite the best efforts of Lovely Tony Mowbray).
And then it happened. Despite the relegation, Sunderland decided that the best way to replace both Jordan Pickford and Vito Mannone was with the broken husk of a man in goalkeeper form, Jason Steele. We apparently paid £500k for Steele in July 2017, and he immediately set alarm bells ringing by letting in five against Celtic in our tragically ill-advised showpiece game against the Glaswegian giants to celebrate 20 years of the Stadium of Light. Steel’s confidence never came back from that…friendly.
Calamity after unbelievable calamity followed Steele onto the pitch for Sunderland. Whether it was diving completely out of the way during 5-2 knacking we received from Ipswich (Simon “had them on the ropes” Grayson), or, my personal favourite, handling the ball roughly four miles outside his box at QPR, Steele’s Sunderland career was a perfect mess. The only clean sheet Steele kept in the league for Sunderland was in our confusing 3-0 drubbing against literal champions of the division Wolves in the final fixture of the season.
In July 2018, Steele (and Sunderland) were handed a life line when Brighton came calling for the keeper, and he was freed up to take on that oh so coveted role of “3rd choice English keeper who will only get on the pitch for a laugh/in a crisis”, made famous by much better players like Scott Carson and Rob Green. In the 5 years that have passed since he moved to Brighton, Steel has played 10 games, only one of which was in the Premier League, where naturally he conceded twice as they lost 2-0 to Aston Villa.
Jason Steele, I hope you are no longer being recorded by Netflix, looking sad into the distance, but I hope we never have to see you again.
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