By Simon Walsh, Roker Report
There’s been debate for many years as to who the greatest player to ever play for Sunderland is.
The answer invariably is Charlie Hurley, whilst the more modern fan may vote for Kevin Phillips or Niall Quinn.
All great shouts for such a competition or list, but something which garners much less discussion is who is the biggest player to play for the club.
By which I mean not necessarily the best, but the most widely known and sought after when we purchased them.
It’s something that came up on our podcast recently, and had us all at Roker Report scratching our heads since there haven’t been an abundance of big names to come and settle on Wearside, nor emerge from it, despite the factors which tend to attract big names.
In the past there was the notorious Bank Of England side, including the record-breaking transfers of the legendary Len Shackleton and Trevor Ford, however these were at a time where football knowledge was at best restricted to your own country, if indeed extended beyond your local area.
Later the club would have names such as Johnny Crossan and Brian Clough ply their trade in the famous red and white. Clough, as big a name as he is now, would still perhaps not qualify as a big name in his prime. Despite Clough’s absurdly good goal scoring record, recognition never followed. Only a handful of England caps followed, complete with a similar number of top flight games.
Crossan is more of a contender for the title of the biggest name to ever play for us. A skilful player, who for a time played abroad before signing with Sunderland. During a successful spell with Standard Liege, Crossan played in the European Cup Final against Real Madrid, and despite being on the losing side, drew praise from the great Alfredo Di Stefano for his performances. A move to Real Madrid never materialised, as Crossan’s “lifetime” ban from British football ended, and he chose to return.
It was relatively slim pickings for a while until the early seventies when, despite the FA Cup win, you’d have to say that Dave Watson was the biggest name of the side. Watson rose to prominence with Sunderland, going on to become a regular in the England side whilst at the club, but when signed from Rotherham United for little over £100k, the striker-turned-defender wasn’t on too many people’s radars. Despite this obvious success, you could still question whether or not Watson was a ‘big name’ because of this.
A further lack of big names continued right through to the mid-nineties. The likes of Marco Gabbiadini and Eric Gates were great players, Gates in particular had a wonderful spell at Ipswich Town under the stewardship of Sir Bobby Robson, but was just about past his peak when he arrived at Roker Park.
Similarly you could say during our first spell in the Premier League when an aging Chris Waddle turned up at Roker Park, so all three of these can be discounted.
Not long after Waddle came the man who’d later be known as ‘Super’ Kevin Phillips. Without doubt the greatest player I’ve seen live in a red and white shirt, and I’d wager there’d be thousands of other twenty-somethings who’d say the same. Phillips undoubtedly became a household name at the club, but despite becoming the only Englishman to date to win the European Golden Boot following an incredible 1999/00 season, a £3.25m move to Southampton hardly screams ‘big name’ to many.
Sessegnon is in high-demand, and we well respected in Europe prior to his move to Wearside in 2011. Whilst with Le Mans its rumoured Arsenal, Manchester United and even them up the road were interested in acquiring his services before he moved to footballing giants Paris St Germain for a fee reported to be around 10 million Euros.
Many of the same clubs still chase Sessegnon after the man from Benin has put in a series of incredible games for us, and it will be a strong test of the clubs character and ambition to see if we keep him. This however is a story for another day. As far as star quality goes though, Sessegnon ticks all the boxes barring one – international success.
Nicklas Bendtner may well be something of a joke around the Premier League, but there’s no denying he’s a highly well known player, even if it is for largely the wrong reasons. His attitude and arrogance go well beyond his actual ability, but these are some of the major attributes needed to be a true superstar.
So we can take into account in the conversation of who is biggest name to play for Sunderland, Sessegnon, Crossan, but there’s one other who I’ve yet to mention, who I feel trumps the pair of them – Asamoah Gyan.
As much as he divides opinion in the North East, he’s still a well regarded player around the world, and was quite the splash when we first signed him. Coming to the club for a record transfer fee, and on the back of a massively successful World Cup 2010, where he was voted into the team of the tournament, his mere presence on Wearside, however fleeting, helped forge the links the club has now to Asante Kotoko and if you believe the rumours, Tullow Oil.
A former BBC African Player Of The Year, who scored goals by the plenty in multiple leagues around Europe, and remains as high in demand as he was when we fought off the likes of Liverpool and Bayern Munich for his signature, apparently.
When we look at the criteria for being a big name; global recognition, international success, high demand when bought and on leaving, as well as cutting the mustard for other teams, it really leaves Gyan as the only one who ticks all the boxes.
Gyan’s highly likely to move on the summer, as much as some would like to believe he’ll come back for a second stint at the club, let’s just hope that as the door closes on one star name, the next one – likely to be Sessegnon, sticks around a bit longer and becomes a legend as well as a star.
By Simon Walsh, Roker Report