Played For Both – Who wore the Red and White stripes, both the correct way, and the weird way

Stephen Kennedy takes a look at the players to represent Sunderland and Doncaster in their careers

I’m not sure what the criteria of being a Doncaster Rovers player is, but a key part of their recruitment seems to be “must’ve been a wrongun at least once”, if their links to Sunderland are anything are to go by. Strap yourselves in for a rogue’s gallery of radgepackets.

Sean Thornton

The very definition of “too much, too young, too fast” in recent memory at Sunderland. Anyone who remembers Mick McCarthy’s time a the club can ponder back with nostalgia at just how exciting the bleach blonde Irish midfielder was, particularly given just how awful we were in his debut season (2003, record points low…for the first time!), but it was Peter Reid who signed Thornton from Tranmere in 2002, and apparently in an underhand manner too, as we were slapped with a mighty £1.5k fine on top of his £225k transfer fee.

Reid’s tenure ended before Thornton made his debut, which eventually came against Bolton in an FA Cup replay under Howard Wilkinson, where he stood out as being a bit special, and simultaneously hammered in the final nail of the coffin of Nicolas Medina, who also made a rare (and final) appearance that game.

From there, Thornton was more or less thrown into the thick of it, and made us all temporarily forget just how tragic we’d been all season by scoring a lovely volley against Chelsea (still lost), and having Gianfranco Zola famously demand his shirt after the match.

Wikipedia tells me that all 11 of Thornton’s Premier League appearances ended in defeat, a record which stood for 13 years until Jack Grealish bested it, so that’s nice.

Unfortunately, the fall into Division One (as it was) didn’t really seem to help Thornton that much, as his appearances stayed sporadic, owing to a series of injures and, most notably, a love of pints.

He had mercurial ability, but when you’re struggling to oust Jeff Whitley and Paul Thirlwell from a midfield needing creativity, it should tell you something’s gone a bit wrong and ultimately, when SAFC were promoted in 2005 (…record points low…again!) Thornton was transfer listed and found himself playing League One for Doncaster.

I’d love to say things got better for Thornton, but injuries plagued him further, leaving after an unremarkable two-year spell in Yorkshire.

A three-year stint at Leyton Orient followed, before Thornton set about a tour of Welsh and Irish clubs that you either haven’t heard of, or if you have, will struggle to spell. Sean Thornton exploded into the Premier League but just as quickly faded into obscurity, as the majority of his professional career fell between 2001-2010. Still, we’ll always have the video of him rapping to a thoroughly confused Brian Deane when we won promotion.

Three of the “Sunderland Four”

That recruitment team of Doncaster’s must have stumbled upon a very specific video when it came to the next batch, as three of the four stars of that most infamous of Sunderland independent cinema releases of 2006 also found themselves playing for Rovers in the years that followed. First, Chris Brown, Sunderland local lad (although actually born in Doncaster) had a prolific spell on loan at Rovers in 2003-4 but found himself back at the Keepmoat from 2011-14.

Never a regular starter for Sunderland, Brown was nevertheless a reliable nuisance up front under Mick McCarthy, but his SAFC career was plagued with, at best, utter daftness. As listeners to his Undr The Cosh podcast will be aware, Brown got himself into bother for firing paintballs out of a car window, and of course, the aforementioned sex tape.

Joining Brown at Sunderland, Doncaster and dodgy looking shops in the red light district is Martin Woods and Ben Alnwick. Woods, made the majority of his league appearances at Doncaster between 2007-13, having struggled to make more than a handful of showings at Sunderland  two years earlier.

The industrious midfielder got himself promoted twice and relegated once at Rovers before a stint in the Scottish Premier League, where he even nabbed himself a League Cup winners’ medal with Ross County. He’s still going at the age of 35, in the National League with Halifax Town.

Alnwick’s link to this is massively tenuous BUT THAT WOULDN’T MATCH THE NARRATIVE, as when he was somewhat confusingly bought by Spurs from SAFC in 2007, one of his many loan spells was to Rovers in 2010, where he made precisely zero appearances.

His five-year stay in North London ended with one league appearance, and he didn’t really find himself as a regular starter anywhere until consecutive spells at Peterborough (14-16) and Bolton (16-19). Despite Phil Parkinson seemingly using his potential return to Sunderland as some kind of threat, Alnwick has been without a club since.

Diouf & Chimbonda

2011/12 is a truly mental season in the history of Doncaster; in the Championship, swapping Sean O’Driscoll for Dean Saunders in the dug-out, Brown and Woods already in the team, they decided that throwing in a load of slightly past-it French and West African players who had likely no clue where Doncaster was beforehand, perhaps in the thought that this might move them up a level.

So joining the likes of Habib Beye and Lamine Diatta were Roy Keane’s best buds, El Hadji Diouf and Pascal Chimbonda.

The former had just come away from relatively successful spells at Bolton, Blackburn and Rangers (with a very average spell at SAFC in the middle) and was still only 30 when he joined Doncaster. The latter’s career never really picked up when he left Spurs (the first time) to join Sunderland, with middling stints at Blackburn and QPR before he too joined Rovers.

Diouf at least got himself a decent return, with six goals in 22 league outings, but left at the end of the season, following a lovely bit of brand establishment, where he was arrested (though not charged) for assault in a Manchester night club.

Pascal “All Parking Spaces Are Mine” Chimbonda’s time at Rovers was blighted by injuries and he left quietly at the end of the same season. His latter years are somewhat mental, as he turned up at Market Drayton Town, Carlisle, Arles-Avignon back in France and even took the North East again playing for Washington…a France international who went to the World Cup just 11 years earlier.

Oh, and they didn’t stay up. 24th. All the French and West African players quietly shuffled out.

Current Link

Thankfully, there’s no such cavalcade of madness between the two clubs today, but one link we share is that the man with the most confusing accent in all of Sunderland, Lynden Gooch made his Football League debut at the Keepmoat back in 2016. From there, it’s been nothing but sunshine and rainbows for Gooch, a Premier League debut, three Wembley appearances, a Netflix documentary all followed. Nothing to see here.