Played For Both Sides – The sad-eyed pantomime horse of League One

Stephen Kennedy takes a look at just one of the players to have turned out for Sunderland and Rotherham

The week between Christmas and New Year, the annual no man’s land where most of us are too full of turkey, chocolate and a truly ungodly amount of booze to understand where we are or what we’re doing.

It’s a time where we reflect on the successes and failures of the year that’s ticking to a close, and start making outlandish goals for the one about to start. For most of us, that’s your mundane but sensible options; losing weight, getting fitting, cutting out the beers, etc.

But for Sunderland AFC, or, specifically Stewart Donald, the beginning of the new year in 2019 meant actively shipping our prize asset, top scoring academy product to shave off a few pennies owed to Bordeaux, and then spend several million pounds on Will Grigg.

So whatever state you currently find yourself in, the bar is incredibly low.

Will Grigg

William Donald (suspicious) Grigg, started out his professional career at Walsall in 2008, having gone through the youth ranks at Birmingham City, Solihull Moors and Stratford Town. His debut came off the bench in the 89th minute in Walsall’s 0-0 draw away at Cheltenham, and, from a Sunderland point of view, that’s a fairly perfect summary for him, though unbelievably to those in red and white, things did get better for Grigg.

After having to wait a full further season to make another appearance, the striker found himself a regular part of the matchday squad in 2010/11, and scored his first professional goal in a 2-2 draw away at Bristol Rovers in January 2011. He’d go on to score three more times before the end of the season as Walsall scraped survival in League One with a 20th placed finish, under the management of Dean Smith (his first gig as a boss).

The following year was much the same for Walsall and Grigg, as they secured a 19th played finish, and Grigg nabbed another four goals, but he also made his international debut for Northern Ireland, playing the full 90 in a 6-0 demolition courtesy of the Netherlands. It was the 12/13 season where things really started to take off for Grigg, with Smith’s team narrowly missing out on a play-off spot, but the striker hitting 20 goals in all competitions.

The upturn in form was enough for Moneyball FC themselves to come calling in summer 2013, and Grigg signed on a free for Brentford (though £405k was ultimately paid via tribunal). To put it lightly, Grigg’s time as a Bee was dreadful, although he was picked for most matchdays that season he managed a meagre 4 goals, two of which came in his second game, a home debut and a 3-1 win over Sheff Utd. Brentford won promotion to the Championship that year, and that saw the end of Grigg’s first spell in red and white, as he was loaned out for his first stint at MK Dons.

Back in League One, Grigg rediscovered his form as he hit 22 goals all in for the 14/15 season. Impressively, he only had 9 by Christmas. Grigg’s goals pushed MK Dons to a second placed finish, winning promotion to the Championship, and of course, he hit a famous brace in a 4-0 upset against Man Utd in the league cup.

So, would Grigg finally have a crack at the second tier? Absolutely not. MK Dons were trumped to his signature thanks to a £1m bid from Wigan, and so back to League One the striker went in July 2015. As we all know, League One was (at that point) Grigg’s safe space, and in Wigan, he found the perfect match; the 15/16 season saw him amass 29 goals as the Latics blitzed their way to the third tier title.

With Wigan, Grigg would finally get a go in the Championship, and things started promisingly, as he scored five times before October, but he’d not hit another league goal for the rest of the season as the Latics ultimately finished second-bottom and returned to League One.

League One of course, was still not prepared for Grigg, and his another 26 goals to bounced Wigan straight back up as Champions in 17/18. At this point, Wigan appeared to be trying to change their ways in a bid to stay a Championship club – Grigg was part of their squad for the first half of the year, and even managed four goals in that time, but when Stewart Donald started throwing money he may or may not have had at the Latics in the January transfer window, Grigg’s time at the DW came to an end, and he turned up on Wearside.

So, surely, having spent big on a League One cheat-code, the man with the best goalscoring pedigree in the third tier of recent years, Sunderland and Will Grigg would be a marriage made in heaven, right? The moment we all knew this wasn’t going to end well came in Grigg’s second appearance, his home debut against Blackpool, when he rounded the keeper, passed the ball towards the net, ran off to celebrate…only for the ball to hit the post and bounce out. Altidore alarm bells began ringing.

Grigg simply never looked comfortable in a Sunderland shirt; his first season brought five goals, but he looked terrified every second of his Sunderland career. The 19/20 season was, if anything, worse, as his sole league goal came at the end of October, with new manager Phil Parkinson’s confusing 5-0 battering of Tranmere – this would be his final goal for the club. A series of perplexing misses would follow before, at the start of the 20/21 season, he was loaned out back to MK Dons.

A return to the Dons only half revived his fortunes (which in fairness, is about as much as you can expect from Milton Keynes), though he did get 8 in 20 appearances for them; hilarious, 4 came in a single game, because Will Grigg apparently hates Swindon. A return to Sunderland was brief, as Grigg was then sent out on loan to Rotherham for the 21/22 season. Things started well for him, with 6 goals in all competitions by the first week of November, however, there wouldn’t be a 7th, and injury put an end to Grigg’s campaign in February.

Grigg was mercifully released at the end of his Sunderland contract in July 2022, and made a second return to MK Dons. However, the magic appeared to have been fully snuffed out, as a single season as a bit-part player brought only 7 goals and he was freed up to joined National League side Chesterfield in July 2023. At time of writing, Grigg’s on 12 goals for Chesterfield, and it’s the first time he’s hit double figures in the league since his final full year with Wigan, in 2017/18.

Now at the ripe old age of, err…32…it appears the fire might be sparking into new life for Will Grigg, but I hope for his sake he never dons a red and white striped shirt again.

Joined Left League Apps League Goals
Sunderland 2019 2022 47 5
Rotherham 2021 2022 19 2