If there was anything even less expected than Sunderland’s recent 3-0 triumph at otherwise unstoppable Wigan Athletic, it was that we also managed to get through the game without conceding to either Max Power or James McClean in the process.
The idea of the dreaded returning player rule is one that most Sunderland fans don’t see as footballing superstition, but footballing fact. Maybe it’s because we’ve been finding innovative new ways to reach our lowest point consistently over the majority of the last decade, but when it comes to misery inflicted on the pitch, one of the more obviously anticipated methods is checking through the opposing team’s line-up before the game and pointing out which of our former players is nailed on to score.
So, I thought I’d do a little digging to see how justified our collective paranoia is, although nobody has enough time on their hands to look back through Sunderland’s entire history for every returning goalscorer, so for this study, we’re just looking at the Stadium of Light era; the 1997/98 season to present. The criteria is simple: any player who scored against Sunderland from 10/08/1997, who has also been under contract at Sunderland at any stage prior to scoring that goal, and the goal can be in any competitive fixture.
Of course, the last player to bite the hand that used to feed was Connor Wickham, scoring with only his second touch, three minutes after returning to the Stadium of Light with Milton Keynes Dons on a depressing February afternoon in Wearside. So who was the first to come back to haunt us of this era then?
Step forward Paul Stewart, a Sunderland player the previous season, then turning out for Stoke City on 25/10/97. Stewart’s goal was a consolation only, as Sunderland were already two goals ahead at the time, and the match finished 2-1 to the Black Cats at the Victoria Ground. Don’t be fooled, us winning in these situations does not happen as often as we’d like, but more on that later.
In total, since the opening of the SoL, returning players have bitten us on our collective backsides 36 times over 24 (and a bit) seasons, which seems an unreasonably high number. My limited understanding of maths works that out to be around 1.5 returning player goals each season since Stewart kicked us off.
Who then gets the award for biggest party pooper, at least, numbers-wise? Connor Wickham comes in joint second, his goal for MK Dons adding to his brace for Crystal Palace back in 2016, tied with King Wind-Up Merchant himself, Chris Maguire on 3 (all of which he scored for Lincoln earlier this season, and is the only player to get a hattrick against us on the list). Pipping them to the top spot though, is Danny Dichio, who I can only assume was so frustrated at having been kept behind Phillips, Quinn and Bridges during his Sunderland career, that the mere sight of us sent him into a rage. Dichio scored four past us after leaving, first for West Brom, a brace for Millwall, and finally in a 4-1 thumping courtesy of Preston North End.
In terms of competitions, there’s a tie at the top between the Premier League and Championship/Division One, where we’ve been on the receiving end of the returning player 13 times each. Slightly more concerning is that we’ve been in League One for three and a half seasons now and we’re already up to seven. For those interested, the FA Cup has two, whereas the League Cup has been relatively kind to us on this front, only happening on a single occasion.
Pleasingly, and probably the only fun thing about Wickham’s winner, was that it evened up the scores on the Home/Away front, split right down the middle with 18 a-piece at time of writing.
It likely comes as no surprise however, that seasons of more notable misery tend to yield a higher number of returning player goals, and as such, nobody gets any brownie points for guessing that the 17/18, Grayson/Coleman Championship implosion season tops the list here. Keeping in mind the previous stat that we have conceded 13 of these goals in the Championship/Division One, it’s incredible that we were hit for 7 of these in our Championship relegation season alone. If there was ever an opportunity for us to be kicked while we were down, that season delivered every time.
When it comes to clubs in particular who like to serve up a piping hot bowl of fume, it’s again a tie for top spot. Danny Dichio’s West Brom have 3, as do our close-ish neighbours Middlesbrough, and, again, thanks to that Maguire hattrick earlier this season, so do Lincoln City. Their place at the top could be safe for the reason of the season though, as we only have Gillingham on 2 to face before the campaign ends.
It also feels like we frequently concede winners (especially late ones) to former players, so it’s a little surprisingly to see that’s only (only) happened six times in our time period. What’s more common is our former players opening the scoring for the day, which has happened 10 times over the same period. Of the other notable goals scored, five of them were equalisers, which basically feels like conceding a late winner anyhow, given the context.
Looking at individual player records, the quickest it’s taken for a player to come back and ruin everyone’s day was a truly hilarious 19 days. That record is held by Stephane Sessegnon, sold to West Brom on 02/09/13 by Paolo Di Canio, only hit the opener against us at the Hawthorns on the 21st of that same month, sparking the end of the madcap Italian’s Sunderland career. For the longest gap between leaving Sunderland and scoring, former England winger Stewart Downing takes the trophy, an unbelievable 4020 days (just over 11 years) after his loan spell at Sunderland ended in December 2003, scoring for West Ham in the same month in 2014.
But the most incredible stat of the lot, and the reason why the return of a former player fills us all with dread is the count of how many times we actually win the games they score in. Out of the 30 individual games in which a returning player has scored against Sunderland, we have managed to win just 4. What’s more, there have been 21 of these games since we last managed a win, the famous 3-2 victory over Burnley at the SoL under Roy Keane in April 2007, starring Carlos Edwards, and, for those keeping tabs on the opposition, Andy Gray. A small caveat here being that when Jonny Evans scored past us in the 2014 League Cup semi final, we technically lost the match 2-1, but won the tie on penalties.
We have lost exactly half of the games we’ve conceded to our returning players, 15 glory times. Is it any wonder we all groaned when we saw Darren Bent, Wickham, Maguire…even Declan John’s name on the teamsheet? Of course, there are surrounding factors to consider here, as since 1997, we’ve arguably only had 7 or 8 remotely enjoyable seasons, and in football, it really does seem to ring true that when you’re down, your luck is out, so perhaps our returning heroes doing the business against us it just a symptom of a club that truly excels at sod’s law.
So again, how we made it past Wigan without succumbing to Power and McClean is beyond me, but then again, we have Charlton at the weekend, who have Adam Matthews and George Dobson in their ranks, so there’s time yet for our numbers to go up before long.
For the full list of returning players, see the below table of suffering:
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