Left Back In Time: Sunderland's Never-Ending Defensive Woes

Paul Thomas

With a permanent move for Danny Rose looking all but out of the question, and the club seemingly deciding that pursuing Lucas Orban any further is a fruitless exercise, Sunderland are once again in desperate need of a left-back. It is a problem ten years in the making.

Back in the late nineties, left-backs weren't much of a problem for Sunderland AFC. These were the days of Michael Gray, the local boy made good, the former winger who moved effortlessly into full-back and was a mainstay in the side for the better part of a decade.

Perhaps we took it all for granted. Perhaps we looked at Gray not in admiration, but rather, with a glance that said, "well, this is how it should be." We are Sunderland, a side that is looking to establish itself in the Premier League for years to come - of course we should have a solid left-back on our books.

Yet, in hindsight, Gray became taken for granted somewhat. Finding himself as the captain of a quickly ailing side, he became maligned in some quarters; those previously pinpoint balls onto the upper reaches of Niall Quinn soon became aimless lofts upfield in the Irishman's absence. A nineteen-point season was in no way Gray's fault - indeed, he was one of a handful whose stock did not fall all too drastically - but there ended his days as Sunderland's premier left full-back.

Not to worry, though, there's a young upstart willing to step into his boots. George McCartney may not have had the same fleet-footedness nor the attacking qualities Gray possessed, but, as the latter departed for pastures new, the former was a more than able second tier full-back.

Indeed, after a solid 2003/04 season, McCartney next found himself named 'Player of the Season' in the following promotion winning year. With the club back en route to the top division, and McCartney a mainstay in the side over the past 24 months, surely the boots of Gray had been filled?

Err, not quite. The Championship is, undoubtedly, a different kettle of fish to the Premier League, and plenty were aware that the young Northern Irishman might not remain such a key figure now the club had moved up again. Unfortunately, McCartney wasn't even given the chance to prove himself - injury robbed him of a starting berth for much of the season and, by the time he was fit enough to play, the side's hopes of surviving relegation had long since been dashed. He departed for West Ham United the following summer, though he will return to this tale of woe in due course.

Back to that miserable fifteen point season though, and where did Sunderland turn next? Julio Arca, you say? The club's outstanding technical footballer, the only man capable of creating something from nothing, a flair player in a maelstrom of mediocrity? Surely we wouldn't put him at left-back in a side so lacking in creativity? But do that we did.

It didn't last long. Justin Hoyte signed from Arsenal on loan for the season and found himself shoehorned into the position, despite being almost entirely right-footed - in fact, sod the almost, his left leg really was just for standing on. To his credit, Hoyte did okay in such a terrible side, but he was never going to be the answer to the problem.

With McCartney gone and Arca following quickly after, the 2006/07 season saw the coming of Roy Keane and all hell break loose in the left-back stakes.

Clive Clarke joined joined from West Ham in the McCartney deal, played a few games, looked painfully, painfully, "oh my good Lord how is it possible to be that slow?" slow, fell out with Keane and was never seen on Wearside again. Keane, for the record, didn't sign him, and made clear his feelings about Clarke upon hearing he'd suffered a heart attack whilst on loan at Leicester City, stating rather brutally: "I'm surprised they found one [a heart], you could never tell by the way he plays."

Nor did Keane sign another left-back who scarcely played that season. Robbie Elliott's signing from Newcastle United was no typical 'signing for your team's arch rivals' affair; indeed, far from pigs heads raining down upon Elliott, the deal was instead met with a collective sigh all around the north-east. Seven games he appeared in, with the only moment of note being his tackle that broke Rory Delap's leg at Stoke City. Delap was on loan from Sunderland at the time because, well, why wouldn't he be?

Lewin Nyatanga was next aboard the roll call, joining on loan from Derby County for the latter half of 2006. He stumped up a mighty eleven games before heading back to the Midlands, having shown little in the way of excitement whilst on Wearside.

Eventually, Keane settled on Danny Collins as his preferred choice. Ross Wallace would occasionally drop in from midfield when needed, but it was the Welshman Collins - signed as a centre-back from Chester City two and a half years previously - who somehow stumbled into the first-team and managed to remain there for the better part of three years.

In fact, Collins' career at left-back was baffling. Despite only having one signature move - the tried and tested 'quick look up then hoof the bugger as far as you can' - Collins was a permanent fixture in the side all the way up until Steve Bruce's arrival in the summer of 2009. In that time, he accumulated two Fans Player of the Year Awards. Two!

That may be harsh. Despite being a converted central defender, Collins never shied from his duties and did adapt his game accordingly. But still, he was never really considered as the immovable object Gray once was. Each and every transfer window, fans expected to see someone come in and replace him - Keane's unsuccessful chasing of Leighton Baines still smarts even now - only for him to still be on the field once the dust has settled, in much the manner of fly that gets into a house and refuses to piss off. (I believe there was a time when Danny Higginbotham was given a slight chance at full-back too, but the less said about that the better.)

Actually, there was a time where Collins found himself turfed out. His replacement? Err...George McCartney. Yes, that's right, in our inability to find a new left-back, we turned the clock back and shelled out a daft amount of money on someone we'd sold two years later. Except now George was quite knackered. Something about the nerves in his foot not working properly. So in came Danny boy once more.

Collins was eradicated by Bruce in the summer of 2009, which opened the door for McCartney yet again. Evidently, he couldn't stay fit, so the door closed rather firmly this time, though he somehow wouldn't leave the club permanently until 2012.

And here was where it began to get even more mental. First, Bruce decided that Anton Ferdinand, a man who could arguably have failed to put a boot on his left foot and scarcely noticed the difference throughout a game, would be a good fit at left-back. To everyone's surprise, Ferdinand didn't do too badly, but thankfully even Bruce could see this was a terrible long-term fix.

Somehow, the idea then strayed into Bruce's mind that Phil Bardsley would be an appropriate fit at left-back. Unerringly, plenty of others felt the same, as Bardsley started cutting inside and pinging home sporadic long-range goals. His positional sense though, would prove to be his downfall. And the fact he had no left foot.

Next came the ploy of moving the very attack-minded Kieran Richardson into defence. Despite still harbouring dreams of being a Roy of the Rovers-type figure, Richardson's professionalism overcame his own individual thirst for goals, and he became arguably the best of Sunderland's long list of makeshift left-backs.

Two seasons of relative calm followed, and many saw Richardson now as a "proper" left-back. But, as this tale has shown, that just doesn't happen on Wearside; Richardson himself was never buying it. Despite becoming a fan favourite in defence, 'Rico' couldn't kick the hope of prospering further forward, and departed for a midfield/substitute bench role at Fulham.

And so we found ourselves at the beginning of last season, with a young lad on loan from Spurs who was noteworthy for one screamer against Arsenal and sod all else. He'll be crap, we said. We were wrong. Very, very wrong. The problem was: Danny Rose was good, too good. Too good in that now we will never get him back, and our current left-back option is Jack Colback. An admirably versatile player he remains, but an out-and-out, Gray-esque left-back? No, sorry.

Sunderland's search for a left-back goes on. There have been many, many Ugly Sisters who have tried on that particular boot, none of whom have gone on to make it their own without some sort of irritating caveat. Cinderella has yet to arrive.

For all this summer's revolution has lit a fire inside many red and whites, the inability to find a left-back - a proper bloody left-back who won't leave and isn't on loan and isn't perennially knackered - will only serve to lengthen a problem that is now over a decade old on Wearside.

NB. After writing this article I realised I had omitted Ian Harte from this tale. I attempted to amend this but some technical difficulties derived my of the chance to do so. In any case, I think I can be forgiven, considering rumours abound that even Ian himself has forgotten he once played for Sunderland.

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