Played For Both Sides – The Sunderland careers resurrected by Plymouth Argyle

Stephen Kennedy takes a look at two players who never turned it on for Sunderland, but had prosperous careers elsewhere. That's a long list...

Easter is upon us, and the results have done little to calm the nerves as those in the automatics seem determined to knacker everything up and all teams in playoff contention are going like the proverbial energiser/Easter bunny to make sure the race for Wembley glory goes down to the wire.

With Sunderland, Wycombe and Sheffield Wednesday all picking up wins, it seems suspicious that our opponents on Easter Monday, the inconsiderately far away Plymouth Argyle slipped up again, taking their form to one win in four (losing two) having previously won six on the bounce.

So, will Sunderland punish Plymouth further, dealing a blow to their playoff chances, or will this be the day the Ginster botherers come back to life? On that tired Easter metaphor, why not take a look at a couple of former Sunderland players who needed to head to Devon to try and resurrect their failing careers in red and white.

Russell Anderson

It’s summer 2007, Sunderland have just stormed to the Championship title in characteristically late and dramatic style under Roy Keane and everyone’s getting excited about who the Irishman’s going to bring in to get the team ready for the return to the big time. Incredibly, and again, in true Keano style, Sunderland ended up signing 12 players by the time August turned to September, but progress was initially slow, as our first signing – an incredible £3m on Greg Halford – on 11th June wasn’t followed up until 27th of that month, with the unveiling of Aberdeen captain and Scottish international centre back, Russell Anderson for £1m.

In true Sunderland fashion, although most of us had never heard of him, hopes were overly high regarding the signing of the defender who was incredibly the only non-Celtic player up for the Scottish PFA’s player of the year award in 2007.

So what happened next became a textbook case of a couple of Keane’s signings on Wearside. Anderson made his first appearance in the Spider-man fever dream that was the Juventus friendly for the Stadium of Light’s 10th anniversary game, he didn’t get onto the pitch in either of the first two league games, instead having to wait for the trip to Wigan on 18th August.

Sunderland lost that game 3-0 and Anderson gave away despite having only come on as a sub in the 62nd minute. Thanks to a mixture of injuries, and perhaps some of Keane’s tough approach to management, that 28 minutes would be the entirety of Anderson’s on-field league career as a Sunderland player.

Finally making his return from injury in the new year, Anderson was sent out on loan to Plymouth in February 2008, where he made his debut in a 2-0 win over Southampton, a game that sounds to us like it should be a local derby, but of course, they are 150 miles apart. His initial one-month loan was extended until the end of the season, and the Scot saw out the season with 14 appearances as Plymouth finished 10th in the second tier, and everything looked to be getting back on track for Anderson. Unfortunately, the resurrection story didn’t really come to fruition, as he was loaned out to Burnley the following year, and promptly did his cruciate ligament in September 2008.

14 long months later, Anderson returned from injury, but was then released by Sunderland in January 2010, having made that one league sub appearance, and a single start in the League Cup (which we lost 3-0 to Luton) being the entirety of his two and a half years on Wearside.

A short and relatively uneventful stay at Derby County followed, with the usual smattering of injuries, before Anderson headed back to Aberdeen in January 2012. Injuries again blighted his second stint at Pittodrie, but he did get to captain Aberdeen to their Scottish League Cup victory over Inverness Caledonian Thistle in 2014, so it was not all sad for Russell. Retiring in 2015, Wikipedia claims he’s still got a “business development” role at Aberdeen (no idea) whilst also being an assistant manager to his brother-in-law at Highland league club Formartine United (also no idea).

Conor Hourihane

From the ridiculous to the…not quite sublime. Irish midfielder Hourihane came through the Academy of Light back in 2009, but failed to make a single appearance in red and white in his only season as a professional on Wearside. Frustratingly, Hourihane fell victim to the same stunted development a few academy graduates faced over the last 15 years or so – in that rather than being exposed to any level of first team football, either with Sunderland or a loan spell anywhere else.

Instead, when the Irishman’s contract expired in 2010, he chose to leave the club and join up with his hero at Ipswich Town, Roy Keane, but unfortunately, that one year stay in Suffolk was just as fruitless, with no appearances in any competition, and he left at the end of another contract expiring.

But this is where things began to change for Hourihane, as he made the ridiculously long journey from Ipswich to Plymouth – how on earth two places so far in the south of England can still be over 300 miles apart is hilarious. Having gone from playing precisely zero games in his first two years as a professional, the midfielder notched up 42 games in all competitions for Plymouth in 2011-12. It’s fair to say that Plymouth weren’t enjoying the best of times during Hourihane’s three years in green, as the club floundered around the bottom of League Two, with two 21st place finishes in his first two seasons, before a much less depressing 10th in 2014.

All in, Hourihane made 125 appearances for Argyle, scoring 15 goals in the process, impressing Barnsley enough to part with £250k to sign him in summer 2014.

Things continued getting rosier in the Irishman’s career from here, winning the Checkapizza trophy and the League One play-offs in 2016 (whilst briefly under the management of everyone’s favourite word soup artist, Lee Johnson).

After one year in the Championship with the Tykes, Hourihane then moved to Aston Villa where he hit an impressive 18 goals in his first two full seasons in the Midlands, winning the playoffs in 2019.

He was still a regular in the Villa team as recently as the 19/20 season, before taking in loan spells back in the Championship, first with Swansea and this reason at Sheffield United. Now 31, a full Ireland international, and pushing for a play-off spot with the Blades, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility we might see Hourihane back in the Premier League again soon.