Battle of the basket case clubs! The fallen giants of the Premier League of yesteryear (neither of which were ever really that good whilst up there) and breeding ground for absolute chancery in the boardroom, Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday have not only shared a truly hilarious interpretation of what being a football club is, but also a selection of players who, surprisingly are not a complete bunch of knackers.
The man who delivered the last meaningful, non-pizza related piece of silverware to Wearside, Ian Porterfield only played for three clubs for notable spells in his career, starting at Raith Rovers in 1964, he moved to Sunderland in 1967 and stayed for a decade before heading to Sheff Wed for the final two years of his career, retiring in 1979.
Upon the end of his playing career, the Scot went on to have a managerial career that even Gary Johnson would think was a bit weird. Stints at Rotherham, Sheff Utd (ooh), Aberdeen and Reading lead up to him being the first Chelsea manager of the Premier League era, and unfortunately for him, also the first manager to be sacked in that new Premier League era.
Porterfield never managed in England again, instead, going on an insane world tour, taking charge of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Oman and Trinidad & Tobago all between 1993-2001. Club jobs in Ghana and South Korean then followed before he took up his final role as Armenia boss in 2006.
Words don’t really do justice to what Porterfield’s contribution to Sunderland meant to the club and city, but his passing in 2007 aged only 61 was greeted by a wave of emotion, particularly as he was the first of the team of 1973 to depart.
Sheff Wed were kings of the madness of 90s Premier League clubs buying a load of foreign players based purely on the fact that they sounded exotic, and Emerson “The Wall” Thome was one of the best examples of this, but mainly because, unlike a great swathe of players the Owls signed in the 90s, he could at least play football.
The massive Brazilian centre-back arrived in Sheffield in 97 and was solid enough to make 61 league appearances before joining Chelsea in 1999. To put that into context, Chelsea’s centre-back partnership at the time was World Cup-winning French duo Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf, so he must have been doing something right in Yorkshire. Ultimately though, it didn’t work out at Stamford Bridge and Thome arrived at the Stadium of Light for £4m in 2000.
Injuries unfortunately meant that he was never truly able to put a consistent run of games together, only amassing 44 appearances in his three years at the club, however, you could argue his more effective role in red and white was to act as a South American welcoming committee for Julio Arca – the pair were inseparable, and the Argentine has credited Thome with helping him settle in England. So for that, at the very least, thank you Emerson Thome.
These two husks of football clubs share two very special managerial appointments. The first, Steve Bruce, you may remember him as “I finished 10th with Sunderland”, “I sold the entirety of a talented squad and replaced them with Ji Dong-Won and Ahmed Elmohamady” and of course, “it was the fans who hounded me out, not the fact that I hadn’t won at home in 10 months, that’s for sure”.
Yes, I’m not from Wallsend, but he is, and the only thing more impressive about Steve Bruce than his re-writing of Sunderland history was his incredibly squiffy spell at Sheff Wed. Appointed in January 2019, he didn’t officially begin work at Hillsborough for another month, owing to the death of both his parents. When he did take to the dugout, he seemed to be one of the few men to actually have a positive impact on the Owls in the Championship for what seems like two decades, winning 7 and losing only 3 in the last stretch of the season.
But then Mike Ashley thought (correctly) that it would be hilarious to replace Rafa Benitez with a local boy, and off to Newcastle Brucey went. In the middle of preseason. Having just signed three players that same week. How’s the bacon indeed.
And then there’s Howard Wilkinson. Wilko, who of course, baffled the Sunderland squad of 02/03 with nettle grabbing and geese formations until he was booted out (queue much celebrations from Tom Peeters) and SAFC plummeted out the Premier League. But back in the 1980s, when Wilkinson was only just slightly too old school, he managed the Owls 255 times, winding up with a win percentage of 44.71%. This is entirely true. Wilkinson was a success somewhere else other than being a pub quiz point for “who was the last English manager to win the English top flight”.
He didn’t actually win anything at Sheff Wed, but there was not a nettle to be seen around the training ground throughout most of the 80s, such was the thoroughness of his training schedule.