What a difference the cup makes to the talent pool available when researching players who have played for Sunderland and their jobbing opponents. To say that Arsenal might not be in the same stratosphere as Morecambe is only an offence to Kevin Ellison, but of course, if there’s one thing this League Cup quarter-final also serves up is that while the quality of opposition is much higher, it reminds us of just how very far we’ve fallen, as this was of course, a bread and butter league fixture just five short years ago.
In our last visit to the Premier League, one of the keepers on the books was of course, the hero of the worst quality penalty shoot-out in living memory, Vito Mannone. The Italian made his league debut in the 08-09 season for the Gunners in that strange period where Jens Lehmann seemed to be going slightly insane, and while he wouldn’t be the man to take the gloves permanently, Mannone did go on to make 15 league appearances for the North Londoners between 2006-13. A couple of spells on loan at Barnsley and Hull later, and Vito was part of the Greatest Summer of Recruitment™ that any Premier League club could hope for, forming part of Paolo Di Canio’s Anti Ketchup Boyband, alongside Modibo Diakite, David Moberg Karlsson, Valentin Roberge, Cabral, Jozy Altidore, El-Hadji Ba, Ondrej Celustka, Andrea Dossena, Charis ‘Harry’ Mavrias, Emanuel Giaccherini and Duncan Watmore.
I think it would be fair to say there were a few eyebrows raised when Vito signed, as he was replacing the Liverpool-bound Simon Mignolet, and given how colossal the Belgian had been over the previous few seasons, signing Arsenal’s third choice keeper was rightly, not what we were expecting, but what we got was one of the bigger cult heroes in recent memory (granted, our choices have been somewhat slim).
Not spectacular, but steady and dependable, you could rely on Vito being dependable, if not spectacular, but if we’re honest, he’s really remembered for two things: 1) The Old Trafford penalty shoot out 2) His support of Bradley Lowery. The latter gave an insight into just how much Mannone grew attached to the club and the area, which is why the idea of him ditching Monaco for a Wearside return over the summer wasn’t quite as ludicrous as it would be in literally every other situation.
Vito was eventually ousted from the nets, first by sentient Romanian electricity pylon, Costel Pantilimon, then eventually by Washington’s biggest radgie, Jordan Pickford, but upon our full Moyesian demotion to the Championship, if there was ever a reminder of how sweet we had it to have three goalkeepers with functioning hands over the previous few seasons, it was when Vito too left for Reading. If Vito had stayed, it’s quite likely we’d have ended up a boring midtable Championship team, but here we are, stained by insurance salesmen and having actually employed Phil Parkinson.
Now, it may surprise you, but I am not a historian, so we’ll keep this brief. Football operated under a law of physics and sense entirely of its own in the pre-war years of the 20th Century. Massive, moustachioed policemen with names like Phineas Poncenby frequently topped the goal scoring charts, and, most bizarrely of all, Sunderland AFC were actually, genuinely, very good at football.
The name that stood out for both Sunderland and Arsenal around this period is Charles Buchan, still SAFC’s all-time record scorer in the league, which is all the more ridiculous, given that he left 96 years ago, has been dead 61 of those years, and we’ve had Will Grigg play for us for nearly three of them.
Starting his career at Arsenal, Buchan scored 209 times for Sunderland in 379 games, winning the league along the way, in a spell stretching from 1911 to 1925, before returning to Arsenal for the final three years of his career – his record there, an also ridiculous 49 in 102. Imagine the cartoonish numbers Buchan would’ve notched up had the world not torn itself apart during his prime.
But that’s enough esteem and seriousness. My pick for the true madness of footballing heroes this fixture throws out is Anthony Stokes, signed as a wonderkid from Arsenal in 2007 without making a league appearance for the Gunners, Stokes went on to not really do much at Sunderland under Roy Keane, other than miss buses and likely give himself a few Keano-related heart attacks along the way.
It is Stokes’ post-Sunderland career which is worth a look over. When he left us, he had a boring, steady career at Sheff Utd, Palace, Hibs, Celtic and Blackburn, but then in 2018, still only 30 at the time, the Irishman went exploring. Off to Greece and Apollon Smyrni (no idea), 4 games, 0 goals, he went missing from training and was sacked, all within a spell of 4 months.
Next, to a club simply called “Tractor”, in the top flight of Iranian football, and things looked lovely for him, 11 goals in 23 games, but an incredibly messy personal situation ended his spell in the gulf state under a cloud of “unjustified absence”, ultimately sending him packing again, this time for a club that may or may not just be a Turkish man, Adana Demispor. 6 games, 1 goal, goodbye Stokes.
Back to Iran! Persepolis came calling and got….one game out of him, before he spent longer in the UAE than given permission for, and cancelled his contract due to the pandemic. Finally, Stokes ended up at Livingston at the start of last season, but, ever the showman, left only a few weeks later, because he didn’t like the artificial pitch, and he currently finds himself clubless. And that is how to finish your career.