Kicking off some random best line ups for Sunderland over the last ten years is Rory Fallow…
We’re now at the point in the funeral where the tears have well and truly dried. You’re now at the wake, having a pint and reminiscing about the good times. It’s still a sombre affair but at least you can smile now, share a joke about when things weren’t so bad, when there was still hope.
Hope on Wearside is probably best exemplified by our recent foreign legion. In previous Premier League stints, our squads were built on so much Britishness that David Moyes would have been beside himself, had he had the chance to manage them. Peter Reid did have his fare share of overseas lads but the foundations of the squad were still built on the likes of Kevin Phillips, Kevin Ball, Michael Gray, Gavin McCann and Niall Quinn. As British Isles as you can get.
Under Mick McCarthy, Sunderland almost exclusively shopped in the domestic market. This made the return to the Premier League under Roy Keane, backed by a far thicker wallet than his predecessors, all the more exciting. So with no further adieu, I give you the best Sunderland foreign side of the past ten years. Lined up in a slightly less exotic 4-4-2.
Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet
Signed for just £2 million, from Belgian second tier side Sint-Truiden, Simon Mignolet proved to be an absolute bargain for The Lads. An injury to Craig Gordon saw Mignolet thrust straight into the team at the start of the 2010/11 season, during a 2-2 draw at home to Birmingham City. It was a shaky debut, the 22 year old looking nervous at such a dramatic leap up the footballing ladder, however against Manchester City a few weeks later, he looked like he’d settled instantly. An astonishing reaction save from Emmanuel Adebayor was the signal that Sunderland had a great prospect on their books.
Stints in the Belgium national side followed, as Mignolet improved season upon season and his last with the club was his best. In 2012/13 he won the player of the season award, a campaign he was an ever present in, after Sunderland beat the drop via a Paolo Di Canio shot to the arm. In the 3-0 win away to Newcastle United, The Ming was outstanding, displaying his trademark ability to get off his line quickly, make himself big and block shots. Given his form, it was no surprise that the elite clubs came calling and Mignolet left for Liverpool in the summer of that year.
Left Back: Marcos Alonso
It says everything about Alonso’s impact on Wearside that he makes this team despite only spending half a season here. There’s also the fact that Patrick van Aanholt was the only real alternative but let’s ignore that because Alonso was mint. During his loan spell in 2014, he scored one of the penalties that sent us to Wembley, celebrated goals against the mags as if he was born in Marley Potts rather than Madrid and was a huge part of the great escape that season.
Alonso’s enthusiasm to get forward meant he worked perfectly with Fabio Borini, given Borini’s penchant to dart inside. He was also clever on the ball, so in Gus Poyet’s possession based team, Alonso was a perfect fit. Alas, his good performances just drove up Fiorentina’s asking price and the Serie A side elected to give him a second chance, a challenge he exceed in. When Antonio Conte arrived at Chelsea in need of a wing back who could suit his style, Alonso was called upon and it’s great to see him doing so well and winning a Premier League medal.
Right Back: Santiago Vergini
Right, hold on. Put your pitch forks away. I know Vergini scored that hilarious own goal but let’s not forget, he was pretty decent for the most part. Also, our right backs haven’t exactly been exotic over the last decade, with Bardsley, Hutton and Jones. Who do you want me to pick, Ondrej bloody Celustka?!
I was always a fan of Vergini. How he’d try (and succeed) at flicking the ball over the head of Eden Hazard. Doing double drag back turns to get away from Alexis Sanchez. You could never blame him for just hoofing the ball clear, he always tried to play his way out of trouble, to a fault. The only time he really did put his foot through the ball was when he rifled it past Vito Mannone at St Mary’s. Vergini was always entertaining though and even though he probably wasn’t suited to the Premier League, he still gets into my squad.
Centre Back: John Mensah
If only John Mensah had a half decent spine. The reason The Rock Of Gibraltar spent so much time on the treatment table was apparently down to his spine being too short, which lead to constant, niggling injuries in his legs. Madness. When he wasn’t injured though, by god he was good.
Mensah would go in for tackles you never thought he would make but somehow manage to get the ball, leave his man on the floor and casually stride away before playing the ball to a teammate. Just reaching six feet tall on his tip toes, some were sceptical that Mensah would have the physicality required to make it in the Premier League but his comic book muscles and superb reading of the game, more than made up for it. Currently on 86 caps for Ghana, it’s clear how talented Mensah was and were it not for being made of glass, he’d have easily had a much more glittering career.
Centre Back: Younes Kaboul
I wonder how different this season may have been, had only Younes Kaboul decided to stay. The “goals conceded” column would have at least looked a bit rosier. Bringing a wealth of experience and tons of leadership qualities, having captained Spurs, Kaboul was exactly what Sunderland needed, as they looked to phase out the ageing John O’Shea. Which is exactly what happened, in the second half of last season anyway.
The partnership of Kaboul and Lamine Kone were unbreakable from February onwards, as Kaboul’s dominance in the air, colossal like stature and precision tackling contributed hugely to the annual escape. It wasn’t just in defence where big Younes excelled though, with his marauding runs being worth the price of a ticket alone. The most remembered is of course his gallop and inch perfect cross for Stephen Fletcher to rubber stamp Sunderland’s sixth win in a row over Newcastle, but a powering, audacious, run against Everton almost saw him score one of the most memorable goals at the Stadium of Light. The ball just flashing wide after he burst forward from his own half.
A superb, classy defender and he probably would have captained the team this season, had he stayed.
Centre Midfield: Yann M’Vila
Another from the side of 2015/16, Yann M’Vila was even shining in Dick Advocaat’s final days. When Sam Allardyce arrived though, he kept getting stronger, working superbly with Lee Cattermole and Jan Kirchhoff. M’Vila always knew where the creative players were and his ability to win the ball and quickly lay it off to someone with a bit more spark than himself, became almost a given as the season went on.
It was that understanding of his teammates that really showed M’Vila’s quality. When Patrick van Aanholt started bursting forward, he was there to fill in. If Wahbi Khazri had drifted inside, he was out on the flank to close down the opposition wide man. In the tackle, he was tenacious, yet graceful and he genuinely seemed to enjoy playing for the club. So much so that he flew himself into the country last August to try and force through a move but being skint, the club couldn’t afford the Rubin Kazan asking price.
Just like Kaboul, the lack of replacement for M’Vila is one of the key reasons Sunderland struggled so badly this season. Both men were integral parts of a decent squad, that just needed a little bit more quality adding to it. Unfortunately, no quality was added and the quality we did have, was torn apart.
Centre Midfield: Bolo Zenden
Speaking of players who weren’t replaced! Why, Steve Bruce, why did you not give Bolo Zenden just one more year? Yes he was getting on but we needed that experience, especially since the players who replaced him were Craig Gardner and Seb Larsson.
The signing of Zenden came right out of left field, as he arrived in October 2009. Having struggled to find a club since being released by Marseille, Zenden rocked up on Wearside with something of a point to prove. A debut off the bench in the infamous beach ball game against Liverpool was an impressive cameo, something most fans thought he’d be limited to. His influence on the side continued to grow however and come the end of the season, Zenden was a first team regular and scored an exquisite volley in a 3-1 win over Tottenham in one of the SoL’s finest matches.
The strong performances earned Bolo a one year extension where he played superbly in the 0-0 home draw against Manchester United, earning the man of the match award and almost scoring a blinder from distance, as the ball thumped the post. Trying to imitate Asamoah Gyan’s dance moves further endeared him to the Sunderland faithful and he wrapped up his stint quite nicely, scoring away to Bolton and away to West Ham in the later stages of the 2010/11 campaign.
Right Wing: Steed Malbranque
Following on quite neatly from Zenden, Steeeeeed was another let go in the summer of 2011, much to the disappointment of the supporters. Malbranque went onto played 93 games for Lyon after his departure, proving he still had what it took to compete at the top level and allowing both him and Zenden such an untimely exit, was certainly a cornerstone of Steve Bruce’s own dismissal.
During his three year spell with us, Malbranque became one of my favourite ever players. His performance away to Hull in the 4-1 win, just before Christmas in 2008, remains my favourite individual performance from a Sunderland player. Steed scored a peach of a goal, where he popped the ball into the top corner from 25 yards and turned a poor Tigers full back inside out, before perfectly placing the ball on the head of Kenwyne Jones. There was also the time he nutmegged James Milner twice in two seconds, just because he could.
The ball just always seemed to be glued to Malbranque and his unselfishness meant he may not have been a great goalscorer but he always gave those around him the chance to find the net.
Left Wing: Stephane Sessegnon
The man created when the almighty took two of the worlds greatest and mixed them together. Critics said he wasn’t consistent enough but if he produced the kind of performances he was capable of, on a regular basis, then he wouldn’t have played for us in the first place. When he was on song, he was magical and the run of form he produced during Martin O’Neill’s early days was dazzling.
Playing Ji through for his iconic last gasp winner against Manchester City, scoring from an improbable angle at home to Swansea and he was so unstopable at this time, that he scored a header at home to Norwich. Impressive stuff for a man standing at 5 feet and 5 inches. The relationship he developed with Nicklas Bendtner was staggering too, best showcased in the 3-3 draw away to the aforementioned Man City. Sess pinged a ball perfectly on Lord Bendtner’s head for Sunderland’s second goal and released the Dane down the right with an inch perfect ball to create the opening for the third. It was joyous to witness such talent on a weekly basis.
That made Paolo Di Canio’s decision to sell him just a year later all the more puzzling. In the games following Di Canio’s arrival, Sessegnon was instrumental in confirming survival with a gorgeous strike in front of the Gallowgate (ushering in the six in a row era) and a beauty the following week against Everton. The departure was abrupt and meant he never got the send off he deserved from the fans, which was the least such an exciting player deserved.
Striker: Asamoah Gyan
On the back of mentioning Sessegnon’s unexpected transfer, it feels appropriate to move on to Asamoah Gyan. I’m putting the way he left to one side for the purposes of this because, on the field, he was fantastic. Even if it was just for one season
After a great showing the 2010 World Cup, the record breaking, deadline day arrival of Gyan was met with high excitement. This was a striker who was flamboyant, skillful and was even a rap star. He had a song that said “African girls are sexy like cheese”, how can you not love that? In fairness to Steve Bruce, it was typical of his time at the club to bring in such big names, the only issue was holding onto them. From his debut though, the Ghanaian’s talent was obvious, when he reshaped his body perfectly to fire in Jordan Henderon’s ball, away to Wigan. It took him a while to find his feet but when Darren Bent was forced out of the team through injury in October, he relished the responsibility.
In a three game spell following Bent’s sidelining, Gyan scored four goals, including a superb run and finish in the 3-0 demolition of Chelsea. When Bent then suddenly left for Aston Villa, the responsibility continued with Gyan’s ability to hold up the ball and challenge in the air proving good foil for Kieran Richardson, who was performing in his latest new position, occupying the number 10 role.
For every ounce of skill Gyan had, he lacked it in application however, evidenced by looking bootylicious in the following pre-season.. The UAE came calling not long after, putting dollar signs in his eyes and his head was so drastically turned, he was resembling The Exorcist. It’ll remain very much a “what if” for dancing Asamoah because if he hadn’t chased the cash, the Ballon D’or nominee could have gone on to be something great.
Striker: Kenwyne Jones
In only his second game, Kenwyne Jones leathered in a shot from outside the box and back flipped his way over to the south west corner. Sunderland didn’t usually sign strikers like this, we’d just came off the back of John Stead and Andy Gray. We still had Daryl Murphy in our side for gods sake! An enigmatic, imposing, powerful front man hadn’t been something Sunderland fans had seen for a long time.
In that first season alone, Jones did enough to make this list. In a 2-0 win over Portsmouth, Jones may as well have handed Sol Campbell a SAGA brochure, as he effectively retired him. Crucial goals were scored against the likes of Fulham, West Ham and Bolton and even in defeats against Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal, Jones stood out, prompting John Terry to come out in praise of the big man.
An injury while on international duty, in a pointless post-season friendly against England, slightly derailed his second Wearside season but his contribution still shouldn’t be forgotten. After Djibril Cisse began a sulk that only he was capable of, Jones didn’t look overawed by being Sunderland’s outlet in a relegation battle that was even tighter than the previous campaign. Such was his form, Tottenham Hotspur tabled serious bids for his services but Jones committed his future to Sunderland and signed a new contract in January 2009, a much needed boost at turbulent time.
In the first two seasons back up, he was our most consistent attacker and even in the third, he had a decent relationship with Darren Bent, bagging himself nine goals. Jones was like a bottom half version of Didier Drogba when he first arrived and the “what if” theme of this list continues with him, as that injury may have stopped him from pushing on even further.