So it’s 4am in the morning and jet lag has kicked in. My recent trip back home (as good as it was to see family and friends), has now got me wide-eyed and restless. It’s also got me thinking nostalgically. To be more specific, it’s got me thinking of the players down the years that for some reason, no matter what they did, how hard they tried and how much effort they put in for the club and it’s supporters…. They were simply not accepted.
Being 31yrs old, my regular attendance at Roker Park began about 23 years ago and coincided with the tail end of a relegation season under Lawrie MacMenemy and the birth of a cult hero the following season when Marco Gabbiadini fired the club out of the third tier of English football. Of course, Marco wasn’t the only reason we bounced back that year. Denis smith had put together a very good side, albeit in a poor division. That side contained the first of my ‘Unacceptables’ list.
Gordon Armstrong was a lad who came through the youth team at Sunderland and who was never shown any love at all by the fans. He managed to play just under 400 games for the club under seven different managers and seemingly always one of the first names on the team sheet. He always gave 100% for his boyhood idols so why was he often castigated by the Roker faithful? Maybe it was his Tyneside roots or simply his shit perm that infuriated us? His uncanny knack of hitting the wall with every free kick he ever took? Or possibly…and this used to irk me…the notion that he was a long throw specialist? Now for those readers too young to remember anything pre-Delap, Armstrong would often run forty yards to take a throw in as if it was a secret weapon. It wasn’t. He barely got it over the 18yd box!
Regardless of all these small irritations (the perm being by far the worst), I’d like to think that the fans can look back in hindsight with a tinge of regret for the utter contempt that we showed to a lad, desperate to do well for the club he loved. I know I do. And let’s face it, who can forget ‘that’ header in 1992.
Armstrong’s presence at the club protected some awful footballers (in profession only) from being the ‘pantomime villains’ for years. And I hope that Paul Lemon, John Cornforth and Tony Cullen give Gordon an annual phone call to thank him for taking the brunt for their undoubted high levels of shite.
The next ‘Unacceptable’ is someone who, like Armstrong, never gave anything less than 100% for the club but who never the less was abused from all and sundry every time he crossed the white line. I think it’s fair to say that Kevin Kilbane’s signing was largely well received when he made the move from West Bromwich Albion for 2.5million in December 99’. We were flying high in the Premier League under Peter Reid and on the crest of a wave. His past performances against us had been quality and he seemed a perfect replacement for the out of favour Allan Johnston down the left hand side. And all looked rosy when Kilbane crossed for Kevin Phillips on debut to seal a comfortable 2-0 win at home to Southampton.
Unfortunately for everyone though, that would be Sunderland’s last win for 3 months as we went on a terrible run that would see us slide slowly down the table. Kilbane was quickly singled out as the reason for the downturn in fortunes and he never recovered from it. By all accounts, one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, maybe ‘Killa’ was too nice and his confidence was shot. You could see it in his play. Afraid to try and beat a man and always opting for the easy ball back to Micky Gray. Despite his lack of confidence, he worked tirelessly up and down the left hand side and was a real team player during the two years that followed when things went from bad to worse as Howard Wilkinson and latterly Mick McCarthy took us down with just 19 points. Quite often during that time, Kilbane was Sunderland’s best player but the locals wouldn’t see it. They just didn’t like him. And that was that.
His days were numbered when, on a pre season match against KAA Gent, the abuse got too much for quiet Kevin and he flicked the V’ sign to the loyal lads and lasses who’d made the trip to Belgium.
Although he never handed a transfer request in, he ended up moving to Everton in the summer of 2003 and managed to play over 100 times for the Toffees before moving to Wigan and more recently Hull City.
I’ll always remember Kilbane for being a hard working and honest lad during his time at Sunderland. Sure, he wasn’t a world beater, but he always did his best and even if that was sometimes not great…. It’s good enough for me.
And to the final ‘Unnaceptable’.(I can think of many more, but this jet lag thing is wearing out and I could quite fancy an hour’s kip). I’m going to go with the a current example. George McCartney.
Now, as far as I’m concerned, the fans never took to George in his first spell. That may sound silly when you consider he won a Supporter’s vote for Player of the Year 04/05. What I mean is that he was never one of the players who was fans cheered loudly for when his name was read out before a game, or chanted about etc. He was just a solid and consistent performer that fans took for granted. His transfer to West Ham was a bit of a shock, having missed the majority of the 15 point season, but proof nonetheless that McCartney was a Premier League player that was sorely missed that season. He went on to come runner up for West Ham’s player of the year award and was OPTA’s 3rd best full back in the Premier league, behind Patrice Evra and Ashley Cole.
Since his return however, he has been made a scapegoat for some poor team performances. I had an argument with one lad in a bar in Brisbane this year about him. ‘McCartney…Ya shite!’ he shouted at the big screen following a McCartney cross had been deflected for a corner. I asked him how he’s come to that conclusion. He told me that whilst defensively, George was reliable and solid, he is useless in the final third. Me personally, I’ll take a full back like that all day.