The Ones That Got Away

Mike Hewitt

After Chris Weatherspoon brought you Sunderland's Biggest Departures we thought it only right to take a look at those who left Wearside for less than their true value.

It is hard to think of many players who have left Sunderland for little money and gone onto equivalent things, let alone bigger and better ones. That is both an indictment of the lack of quality at the club and also a mark of its ability to get a decent fee for a number of the star players sold over the years. Several, though, have slipped through the net.

In the last 30 years or so, Ally McCoist springs out as the first, most obvious example of a player who would go on to be a legend elsewhere after being sold for a relative pittance. Although his record in red and white did nothing to suggest he would soon become a Rangers idol, he was still a youngster when he departed for a paltry fee of £185,000. Once at Rangers, there was no looking back as the Scot claimed countless titles on the back of his prolific goal scoring exploits.

Following hot on his heels was Paul Bracewell. Although he played for the club on three separate occasions, it was after his first spell in red and white that he found real success at Everton, including a European Cup Winners' Cup medal and an England call up. Despite returning to Wearside, Sunderland undoubtedly missed out on his best years by allowing him to move to Merseyside for less than half a million pounds.

Bracewell and McCoist were allowed to leave before realising their potential. The opposite is true of genuine club legend and European Golden Shoe winner, Kevin Phillips. After allowing his loyalty to the club to effectively dash any hopes he had of moving to one of the England's biggest clubs for what would have been a huge fee - Arsenal were reportedly interested with deals of up to £15m being mooted in the press - he eventually left for next to nothing on the back of a miserable relegation.

The reality of the 19 point season was that a number of stars were to leave for far less than their true value. Phillips went to Southampton for around £3m, continuing to score top flight goals. Meanwhile, Thomas Sorensen left for Aston Villa - a club where he and Phillips would link up for a second time - for far less than his apparent worth, moving for around £2m.

Although both players - Phillips in particular - had their best spells on Wearside, neither left for their true value and both carved out Premier League careers upon their departure. Given the list of players who have left Roker Park and the Stadium of Light to ply their trades in the second tier and lower, retaining top flight football could be seen as a success in of itself.

A couple of players who played alongside Phillips and Sorensen left before the return season in the Premier League had begun. They are Allan Johnston and Lee Clark. Although Johnston was still a Sunderland player when the first of those Premier League seasons began, he was never considered by Reid after turning down a new contract, with his heart set on a move to boyhood heroes Rangers. Lee Clark, meanwhile, was quickly sold after that incident at Wembley in which he disgraced himself in an SMB t-shirt.

Whilst Johnston found that the grass is not always greener on the other side - he barely featured for Rangers and his career declined rapidly - the fact that a player who had entertained the Stadium of Light was able to walk away for free was in itself a tragedy. Had Rangers moved to sign him in his pomp, with a couple of extra years on his contract, a decent fee would certainly have been required to even get Sunderland talking. Clark meanwhile simply had to go. That said, the value of his goals on the way to promotion and the Division 1 title cannot be underestimated and he went on to play an important role in Fulham's rise to and consolidation in the top flight.

Free transfers have been the bane of Wearside on more than one occasion. A very recent case in point is Steed Malbranque. Few would have imagined he would go on to have an excellent season for Lyon playing as a central midfielder when he walked away from the Stadium of Light for nothing, but that is exactly what he has done. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but Sunderland could unquestionably have used the talented midfielder's versatility and class this season, given the paucity of quality options available.

A handful of less heralded players - on Wearside at least - have left the club and gone on to have even better careers than Malbranque. Criminally underused veteran central defender Thomas Helmer - abandoned after apparently calling Bobby Saxton a dinosaur - moved to Hertha Berlin, whom he represented in the Champions League. It would be his swansong, but if he was capable of playing at that level, he could have offered Sunderland plenty had he been given the opportunity.

Similarly, Edwin Zoetebier was kept out of the Sunderland team by none other than aforementioned Thomas Sorensen. He evidently had quality though, moving back to the Netherlands where he won the UEFA Cup with Feyenoord, playing in the final.

There are those who have escaped Sunderland without a murmur of discontent but who it could be argued slipped through the net. Three such examples - whose losses are very much defined by context - are Dickson Etuhu, George McCartney and Michael Turner.

There was no outcry when Etuhu was sold to Fulham but his career took an enormous upturn when he left Wearside. He went on to play in the Europa League final for the West Londeners who were unlucky runners up to Atletico Madrid. Factor in that his physical midfield presence was traded in for the ineptitude of centre forward David Healy and it's enough to make any Sunderland fan wince.

McCartney is a player most supporters would rather forget. Like Bracewell he played for the club more than once. However, his return and the fee involved - another Keane masterstroke - make his initial loss all the worse. He was never brilliant, but moved to West Ham for a nominal fee. He was surely worth more. Keane obviously agreed, buying him back for a fee close to £5m but his performances left supporters wishing he had remained a West Ham player. When he left a second time, the net was left wide open as he was forced through it without any resistance from the man himself.

As for Turner, the small fee paid for his services represents his average quality, but while he has gone on to have a decent season with Norwich, Sunderland have suffered with a lack of decent options at centre back. His sale was understandable but it led to the likes of Titus Bramble playing more frequently than anyone of a red and white persuasion was comfortable with. In this instance, the player rather than a few quid in the bank would have been preferable.

McCartney was brought back to solve a left back problem that remains today. It is an issue that arose when local lad Michael Gray left the club and has never been resolved on a permanent basis. Like Sorensen and Phillips he left after the humiliation of the 19 point season, moving on loan to Celtic before signing for Blackburn Rovers for free. His time on Wearside included call ups to the England squad and he is another player that at one time would have fetched the club a tidy fee.

Another player signed as a left back who spent most of his Sunderland career making himself a crowd favourite on the left side of midfield was Julio Arca. Like Phillips, he suffered for his loyalty to the club, sticking around for longer than a player of his talent should have done. He was so settled in the area that when he did leave, it was just a few miles south to Middlesbrough for less than £2m. Had he forced a move earlier, bigger clubs and a larger fee would certainly have been in the offing.

Perhaps it is a stretch to suggest that all of the lads named genuinely slipped through the net, but that is testament to the fact there are not a huge number of memorable examples to draw on. Those who have left for free or nominal fees are also a warning; if an excellent offer comes in for a player at their peak and the club accepts it then they are probably right to. Sunderland rarely getting anything less than good value and that is to be applauded.

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