Ah, Coventry City. Our fake rival for this year it seems, given that we really can’t be arsed to keep up the act with Wigan Athletic anymore.
The two sets of fans really don’t like each other, and it’s for reasons that stretch back way too far for most of them to actually care about. That was, obviously, until Coventry fans decided to hoy various objects down onto us in the opening fixture of this season. It therefore looks like we’re just not going to get along, much to the dismay of literally no one.
We have, however, shared a few players down the years, so in the spirit of being civil…
The story of Jordan Willis is a good one in terms of sheer footballing drama. The centre-back is Coventry born and bred and came through the Sky Blues’ academy, making his debut way back in 2011 aged just 17.
Blessed with bucketloads of pace and athleticism, Willis was gradually eased into a Coventry team which was ultimately relegated to League One in the first two years of his career, before becoming one of the first names on the team sheet in the 2013/14 season.
Unfortunately for Willis, his breakthrough at Coventry coincided with the nadir of the club’s decades-long mismanagement, as they stagnated in the third tier before being relegated to League Two in 2017.
Not to say that was Willis’ fault, mind. Coventry were still producing the odd star from their academy (see: Maddison, James), and Willis earned himself caps at England youth level despite the struggles of his club.
Coventry’s resurrection started in the 2017/18 season, which culminated in a play-off victory against Exeter City at Wembley. That day also offered up the the crowning moment in Willis’ career to date – opening the scoring with an absolute raker to send the club back up to League One. A solid year in the third tier followed before Willis opted against extending his stay at his hometown club and upped sticks to the North East on a free in July 2019.
Willis immediately became a key component of Jack Ross’ second go at getting Sunderland promoted, which of course went horrendously wrong, saw the manager lose his job and then be replaced by Phil Parkinson. A truly fantastic time to be a Sunderland fan.
During that first season, Willis was deployed as a roaming centre-back, as both Ross and Parkinson stole Chris Wilder’s schtick at Sheffield United, albeit far less successfully. Willis’ pace saw him become an unexpected thorn in the side of opponents for a brief run, one in which you’d see him crop up on the right wing, crossing the ball in for Will Grigg to miss entirely.
Willis’ ability was clear to see on Wearside, making him an immediate favourite with the fans (though, when the previous options were Jack Baldwin and Glenn Loovens, we couldn’t really be picky) and he scored against Portsmouth, which always helps.
During the 2020/21 season, Willis continued to impress, but niggling injuries started piling up, so naturally the managers (first Parkinson, then Lee Johnson) decided to rest him for less meaningful games. And by that I mean they played Willis in Pizza Cup games against Carlisle United, Fleetwood Town, Port Vale and MK Dons, stacking Willis’ appearances until he was at the point of breaking. That break finally came in February 2021, when he had to be brought off after only seven minutes of action at Shrewsbury Town.
A serious knee tendon injury which later recurred meant that Willis would not play another game for Sunderland. At first, he was kept involved with the first team, given scouting duties under Johnson and, even after his contract expired, he was kept at the training ground throughout his rehabilitation. Finally, the moment came for Willis to leave our midst at the start of this month, when he was signed by our old League One friends, Wycombe Wanderers.
Since completing a near two-year ordeal, the comeback is very much on for Willis, and in his three appearances for Wycombe the Chairboys have kept two clean sheets and won all three games. Still only 28 years old, there’s time left for Willis to get back into the Championship, a level we all recognised he was already at when he decided to leave his hometown club to head to Wearside four years ago.
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The same summer we signed Jordan Willis, we also brought in his Coventry City teammate, goalkeeper Lee Burge. Burge also arrived on a free to fight for the number one shirt with Jon McLaughlin, making us even less popular than usual with Coventry fans that season.
Burge had also played his part in Coventry’s resurgence, making sporadic appearances for them in League One before becoming their first choice keeper in the League Two promotion season. A steady stopper at Coventry, although known among fans for the occasional clanger, he made 40 appearances back in League One before jumping ship to ourselves in 2019.
Limited to cup games and a handful of league appearances in his first year on Wearside, owing to McLaughlin being actually quite good, Burge had to wait until the 2020/21 season to take the number one shirt, after our owners decided to mess McLaughlin’s contract around (not that this was a habit of theirs).
In his single season as first choice keeper, Burge produced a series of outstanding saves and become something of a penalty specialist, saving two in a single game against Doncaster Rovers. Although Sunderland again knackered their chances of promotion that year, Burge was named in the League One team of the season, but immediately found himself out of the picture the following year thanks to the arrival of Rob-Thorben Hoffman and the emergence of Anthony Patterson.
Health problems relating to Covid did Burge no favours, and by the time he found himself fit again Patterson had made the keeper’s shirt his own. Burge left the club at the end of his contract in summer 2022, and surprisingly made the step down to League Two with Northampton Town, where he is very much their first choice and making a play-off push for another return to the third tier.
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