Life as a Sunderland fan has been unrelentingly grim over the last few years, specifically more so since the turn of 2022, as we have decided to enter self-destruct mode efficiently early this season. Our journey down this long and winding road of misery has often been punctuated by encounters with Burton Albion, dating way back to when they were what we thought was going to be our most embarrassing away trip in the heady days of our Championship season.
Since being relegated from the Premier League, the fixture with this week’s likely victors on Wearside has thrown in some truly excellent examples of life for Sunderland out of the big time. Our first encounter saw us win, but with James Vaughan cupping his ears to his own fans. The second of course confirmed our fall into the League One hellscape we are still to get out of (that was four years ago now…).
Our first meeting the following season saw us lose 2-1 as their keeper annihilated Charlie Wyke, while we drew 1-1 in the home fixture thanks to an own goal. In the season that Covid ended, we only met once, and naturally, we lost 2-1 at home. Last season we managed another trademark 1-1 at home and finally, a lovely 3-0, helped by the Brewers having a man sent off.
This season, Burton handed us our first loss of the season, which we were all largely okay with, as we’d played brilliantly on the night. However, nine more losses have come our way since, so if there was any team better qualified than Burton to compound our misery, I’d not like to meet them. To make us feel better, let’s have a look at some of the men who probably played a part in this mess.
Remember when we arrived in this division, shell-shocked at memories of Jason Steele and Lee Camp (who also had a stint at Burton), and the free transfer signing of a Scottish keeper who had spent the majority of his career in the third and fourth tiers of English football was understandably greeted with reservation? Turned out, McLaughlin was precisely the antidote we all needed after watching Steele and Camp (and occasionally Ruiter) bravely face up against the fact that they had neither hands, working knees/hips or arguably common sense.
McLaughlin was a class act for Sunderland, and while there’s not much competition for him, is hands down the best keeper Sunderland have had since we exited the Premier League. Barring a shaky spell at the start of his second season with us, the Scot was reliable, commanding and capable of pulling out the occasional wonder save to boot. In short, had we not undergone yet another trademark Sunderland 2018-22 piece of business (wonder who the link is there) and farted on with his contract, there’s a chance he’d still be here, instead of being allowed to leave for free in summer 2020. Since leaving Wearside, McLaughlin has found himself as reliable backup for Glasgow giants, Rangers, winning himself a lovely league medal in 2021, as well as getting himself into Scotland’s Euro 2020 squad in the process.
But before his time in red and white, McLaughlin had also taken in three seasons at Burton Albion, where, funnily enough, he was seen as a reliable, commanding presence who was capable of pulling out the occasional wonder save. Funny, that. With Burton, McLaughlin joins the considerable list of players to have played for Sunderland in League One who have managed to win promotion from the division with seemingly any other club but Sunderland, as he helped Albion reach the Championship for the first time in their history in 2016. We can but dream.
It would be remiss of me to not mention The Truth himself, Darren Bent, on this list. We don’t need a history lesson on Bent, the man scored goals for fun for Ipswich, Charlton and Spurs before an incredibly prolific spell at the Stadium of Light. He then made that move to Villa in 2011 and never really hit the same levels again for the rest of his career.
Bent’s time at Villa lasted four years, but also included loans at Fulham, Brighton and Derby, before joining the Rams permanently in 2015. However, finding his playing time difficult to come by in his third full season at Pride Park, 34-year-old Bent joined Burton Albion on loan, looking to help keep them in the Championship.
His short Burton career reads as 15 appearances and two goals, the first being in a 3-1 loss to Cardiff. The second however, is probably one of the most painful goals the Stadium of Light faithful have ever had to endure. 21st April 2018, despite having been appalling all season, Sunderland were still, inexplicably within a chance of escaping relegation and beating rivals for the drop Burton 1-0 with less than five minutes to play.
Bent had been subbed on in the 73rd minute, and as we all know the script for returning former Sunderland players, he dealt the hammer blow to our season on the 86th, celebrating with gusto before the despairing red and white crowd. Such was our fragility that season, that we doubled down on the misery and four minutes later we were losing, five minutes further and we had a big red “R” next to our name in the table.
And here we are, four years on…
But there’s one more
We don’t want to end on a sad note, do we? So, 2014-15, 16 appearances, two goals for Burton; 2020-21, 25 appearances, one goal and a Pizza Cup winner’s medal, it’s your hero and mine.