Welcome to crunch time! The Easter weekend is upon is, and it is traditionally a time where seasons are made or broken in the Football League, usually the latter where Sunderland are concerned. To start our double-header is the okay-in-theory test of Shrewsbury Town, the team who don’t concede many goals, but have still managed to lose 17 times this season.
As we brace ourselves for what will most likely be another round of a team coming to the Stadium of Light determined to grind out a point, why don’t we take a look at two players who’ve not only worn the colours of both Sunderland and the Shrews, but they’ve both done so whilst Sunderland have been on this League One magical mystery tour.
We can’t really start this peek into Shrewsbury’s line-up without addressing the tall, lanky, Pug-from-the-Bash-Street-Kids lookalike, Tom Flanagan. Infamously sold/given away at the end of the January transfer window this season, and seemingly with the sole purpose of making room on the wage bill for a certain returning and already former striker, the Northern Irish international defender was brought to Wearside by Jack Ross when we crashed out of the Championship, on a free transfer from Burton Albion.
Solid without ever really being spectacular, Flanagan endured a bit of a mixed time in red and white, finding himself partnering, amongst others Glenn Loovens, Alim Ozturk, Jack Baldwin, Bailey Wright and even Luke O’Nien in his three and a half years in the North East. It’s fair to say that Flanno’s best form didn’t arrive until this season, where he was arguably the stabilising presence Callum Doyle needed beside him in his early months since his loan from Man City. During the first few months of this season, Flanagan and Doyle formed a solid partnership, with the Northern Irishman notably talking the youngster through games in our initial good run of the season.
Flanagan’s time at Sunderland is a funny one; had we been promoted in any of the last three seasons, he’d probably be remembered fondly as a dependable if not so spectacular defender during the club’s time in the third tier, but as it stands, and somewhat harshly so, Flanagan will likely go the way of his defensive partners before him – quickly forgotten until we come up against him or see him on TV again.
Weirdly though, for all the clamour of the truly bad decision to let him go halfway through a season decimated by defensive injuries, lack of form and knackered youngsters, it’s somewhat ironic that Sunderland’s defence has improved so markedly since his departure.
Since arriving in Salop, Flanagan has found himself a regular in the Shrewsbury team, making 10 appearances to date, helping the team to six clean sheets in the process, including in the mental 3-0 dismantling of Rotherham. Good Friday is going to be a challenge for Sunderland to break down a resolute Shrews defence, and I think we’ll all be a bit itchy if we see Flanno heading up for any corners.
When I started putting this article together, I was delighted that I was possibly going to get to see Donald Love in person again in the near future. Then I ruined it for myself by realising that he’s actually been playing for Salford since last summer, so really, what’s the point in going on any more?
Signed by David Moyes from Manchester United (where he made his sole league appearance against Sunderland), Don Love is probably one of the strangest chapters of Sunderland’s recent history. When he was unveiled alongside Paddy McNair, he looked like a frightened schoolboy, and was clearly uncomfortable in front of the media.
He never really broke into the team under Moyes, but looked shaky at best at every appearance, so when we dropped into the Championship, we thought maybe he’d find his level and start making progress. Nope! Instead he arguably looked further out of his depth, and whilst it definitely wasn’t his fault, we only won 2 of the 11 league games he appeared in that season, although he did score against Carlisle in the League Cup, and Grimsby in the Checkatrade, in the year before we were forced to start playing in it properly.
So, down we went into League One and again we thought, maybe Don will come good now? Nah. The right back only made four appearances all season, all within the first month, before injury and ultimately the form of Luke O’Nien in his revelation at full back meant that was it for Love’s Sunderland career, he was released at the end of his contract in Summer 2019.
Don’s destination was Shrewsbury, and he made himself a regular in his first season, perhaps the Scot had finally made himself first teamer! Sadly though, his second year at the New Meadow brought only 14 appearances, and the most notable one of which saw him scoring an own goal against Liverpool in the FA Cup. As is the way with Love, his spell at Shrewsbury petered out quietly, having made 42 league appearances in two years.
Love moved on to Salford in League Two at the start of the current season, but good news! The Don of Love has found himself a regular member of the Ammies under the stewardship of Gary Bowyer. Maybe this time it’ll work out for him, and I hope it does…but I’m very sad he’s not coming back to the Stadium of Light this weekend, see his daft little face.